Have you ever tried Indonesian food? Indonesian restaurants can be hard to come by, especially on the Westside, but if you like Thai food, there's a good chance you'll enjoy this cuisine as well. For a great introduction to the cuisine via a sampling of many dishes, try Indo Cafe's rijsttafel on Wednesday nights (call ahead for reservations).
I am not very familiar with Indonesian food, but it wasn't a problem because the menu had plenty of photos, our waitress was happy to make recommendations, and she even let us try a couple of things we weren't familiar with. As much as I wanted to like durian so I could be hardcore, ten tiny bites of an ice cream with the pungency of raw garlic, the odor of sweaty socks, and undertones of ripe cheese and papaya couldn't convince me. At least I didn't waste $4.25 on the shake.
Indo Cafe's beverage menu is pretty unusual for the average American palette. In addition to stinky durian shakes (es durian), you'll also find es alpukat (avocado shakes) and my favorite, es teler, an iced drink made with sweetened condensed milk and bits of avocado, toddy palm, and jack fruit. It's so rich that, like boba tea, it's more a dessert than a drink. Plus, you need a spoon to consume the fruit.
I started off with the gado gado, a traditional Indonesian salad consisting of, in this case, bean sprouts, green beans, lettuce, tofu, hardboiled eggs, and shrimp chips, all served at room temperature and doused in a warm, hearty peanut sauce. The portion size is large enough to be a meal, and I'd recommend ordering it as such or sharing it with the table because it doesn't keep well.
Hard boiled eggs crop up in many Indonesian dishes. So does peanut sauce--order wisely, or you'll get sick of it fast.
These pan-fried rice noodles could have easily been a Thai dish--there wasn't anything distinctively Indonesian about them, at least not to me. Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with that--Indonesian food can taste a lot like Thai.
The cuisines do have their differences, though. According to my favorite authority on the subject, Elmomonster, one of the primary differences between the two cuisines is that "Indonesian food focuses more on stews and food that actually steeps and develops a more rounded flavor." I also learned that many Indonesian stews have to be reheated several times before they can be eaten so that the spices have a chance to permeate all of the ingredients in the stew.
The pork sate tasted uncannily like hot dogs doused in peanut sauce. You can either messily munch them off the skewer or try not to propel them across the table while sliding each piece of meat off with your fork. I think I would have liked this dish a lot if I'd had the chicken or beef instead of the pork.
The chicken marinated with turmeric and Indonesian seasoning wasn't a show-stopper. When I think of marinated chicken, I think of juicy, tender meat. I couldn't tell that this bird had been bathing, but a dunk in the dipping sauce made up for that.
My favorite dish at Indo Cafe is the dendeng balado -- beef sauteed with chili sauce (lead photo). I couldn't get enough of this dish's sauce, which reminded me of the Spanish roasted red pepper condiment called pisto.
My previous encounter with empek empek (pieces of fish cake served with egg noodles in a spicy vinaigrette sauce) led me to believe that the dish was a soup, but that's not really the case, as you can see here. While the dipping sauce was so delicious that I saved the leftovers to pour over cucumber slices, the fish cakes were too tough to chew in places.
Another Indonesian dish that you may have heard of is nasi goreng. For some reason I was expecting something grand, but it was just fried rice with chicken. You can make it more interesting though: other meat options include beef, corned beef, seafood, shrimp, squid, or salted fish. Even still, I wouldn't order this again.
You can add Indonesia to your list of countries that have a version of the empanada (don't ask me who did it first). Indo Cafe's fried flour pockets are filled with chicken, potatoes, carrots, and the ubiquitous hardboiled egg.
Give yourself an extra 15 minutes to find a parking space when you go to Indo Cafe. I read on other websites that they have a parking lot, but if that's true I couldn't find it. Street parking in the area is difficult almost to the point of seeming impossible, even when you drive a tiny car that can park practically anywhere.
You should also give yourself some extra time to find the restaurant. Indo Cafe itself is fairly large, well lit, and has a very visible decorative sign that you'll spot easily. The problem you might have is in navigating this section of National Blvd. If you aren't familiar with the neighborhood, and I mean really familiar, make sure you map it before you start driving.
When you arrive, don't be put off by Indo Cafe's imposing security guard (was that really a gun I saw in his belt?). The only thing scary about Indo Cafe is. . .well, nothing, unless you're allergic to peanuts. Almost every dish is under $10 and the portions will certainly fill you up, if not provide leftovers as well.
For groceries and more Indonesian food, check out Simpang Asia in the strip mall across the street. For more Westside Indonesian, check out Ramayani in Westwood. For a crib sheet to help you decipher Indonesian menus, go here (definitions are at the end of the review).
Thanks to Moonchilde for the recommendation and Elmomonster for the help and inspiration.
10428 1/2 National Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90034
Indo Cafe Menu
Map to Indo Cafe
Look at the map if you aren't familiar with National Blvd.'s convoluted meanderings!
Other LA Indonesian Restaurants
Toko Rame, Bellflower
Indo Kitchen, Alhambra
Asian Deli, Diamond Bar