Ask Jennifer Pou Alesi why Chicago is so interested in Malaysian food and she will cheekily answer, "What is there not to be interested?" Pessimists might put Kedai Tapao's quick popularity and coverage in ABC Chicago and the Chicago Reader down to the allure of 'exoticism' to Westerners, but fans of the pop-up will tell you that they can't get enough of the small outfit's intense flavours and time-tested recipes.
On this last note, Michael Alesi is no stranger to F&B, having worked at a slew of restaurants—Fat Rice, Next Restaurant and Lula Cafe—in Chicago, but was trained in Malaysian cuisine by Jennifer's folks. In fact, both Alesis come from a culinary background, with Jennifer beginning as a home baker before working in various restaurants and cafés, from a French restaurant in Laos to VCR Café in Malaysia.
In order to provide the Windy City with authentic Malaysian flavours, the partners dip into Jennifer's deep well of Malaysian food memories, some of which she shares in the following interview:
How long has it been since you were in Malaysia? What food and drink do you miss the most?
I left Malaysia at the end of February 2020, so it has been slightly over a year. I definitely miss my mom's asam laksa the most, but also things like buying yau char guai from SS2, and the convenience of getting kopi peng and teh O ais limau anywhere!
What is the first dish you plan on scarfing down upon your return and where will you have it?
For whatever reason, whenever my family and I come back from traveling, we go to Restoran Tiong Hokkien Mee in Uptown, PJ. So definitely Hokkien mee and Village Park's nasi lemak ayam goreng.
Do you have a favourite restaurant in Malaysia for fine dining? How about for more casual experiences?
I don't really go for fine dining, so I guess I don’t have one. For breakfast or brunch, I like going to Restoran O&S at Taman Paramount for their yong tau foo, char kuey teow, minced pork lou shu fan, and kuey teow t'ng, and I do love having family dinners at Yan Wo Seafood Restaurant in Aman Suria.
If you have visitors or guests with you, where do you go to give them a real taste of Malaysia?
I bring them to restaurants that my family and I frequent because personally, that's what I would love to experience if I travel somewhere: how the locals live and eat. But of course I would also bring them to touristy places like the beautiful Petronas Twin Towers. Pasar malam is on the list too, for sure!