Nasi Padang? Feh. So been-there-done-that. The problem with many of the nasi Padang places in and around Kuala Lumpur - the chain imports from Indonesia, especially - is that they seem to tone down the heat to suit milder Malaysian palates. So, when it's a burn we're hankering for nasi Kapau's a much better bet.
Warung Nasi Kapau, a small, squeaky-clean place on Jalan Raja Alang just up the street from Chow Kit Market, has been around for about twenty years. The owner and mistress of the kitchen migrated from Kapau (a small village about 10 kilometers from the western Sumatran hill town of Bukit Tingi) in the eighties; her sons work the front of the restaurant.
Places specializing in nasi Kapau display their tempting wares as those offering nasi Padang do, in pots and platters lined up in glass display cases.
Customers grab a serving of rice and then work the line, adding this and that to their plate. Or, they grapple with what's on offer as we prefer to, via a series of small plates. (Caution: the small plate approach is often the path to obscene overindulgence.)
A few things distinguish Kapau specialties from those of Padang: a preponderance of green chilies (as the three dishes in the middle, above, illustrate), an occasional hint of tartness, lots of vegetable dishes, and HEAT. When it comes to chilies Kapau cooks don't pull any punches (ka-pow!).
Warung Nasi Kapau serves four types of sambal (chili sauce), including two types of sambal hijau (literally, 'green' sambal), made with the aforementioned chilies. These chilies, especially when combined with a bit of lime juice or lime rind, lend a very un-nasi Padang-like lightness to many dishes.
Particularly nice are the small fish, butterflied and deep-fried so crisp they can be eaten bones and all, topped with chilies and caramelized onions (second photo). Small eggplant roasted whole and swaddled in a tart chili blanket boast a superb creamy texture that's complemented by the slippery, silky sauteed peppers.
The restaurant's beef rendang is deep, smoky, and very tender, and its square tempeh 'cutlets' stewed in a mild turmeric-heavy gulai (coconut milk-based curry sauce) are wonderfully soybean-nutty.
Not every item at Warung Nasi Kapau is deadly spicy, but those that are, really are. Everthing we tried was hands-down delicious, but we left many a nasi Kapau stone unturned here. This place is the next best thing to the nasi Kapau stalls at Bukit Tingi's market. We'll be back.
Warung Nasi Kapau, Jalan Raja Alang, noon-12pm daily.