Where To Eat Indonesian Food In LA Right Now
Indonesian cuisine is as varied as the number of islands that make up its archipelago — so many that researchers have a hard time getting an exact count (17,504 at last estimate). The country is home to hundreds of ethnic groups and thousands of regional dishes. You can see that diversity in something as simple as sate, a grilled meat skewer more commonly known in the United States as satay. It sounds basic but in each region, it's prepared with a different balance of sweet, spicy and savory flavors. In the U.S., the most popular style comes from East Java, where skewers of chicken or goat are served with a sweet peanut sauce. Padang-style satay from Sumatra is served with a spicy curry. Balinese sate lilit is made with minced meat, lime zest and coconut then grilled on sugar cane or lemongrass sticks.
Indonesia's cuisine has also been influenced by its large Chinese population and its time as a Dutch colony, officially from the 1800s until the end of WWII although Dutch people first came to Indonesia in the 1600s. That mashup of cultures gives us dishes such as semur (beef stew) and lapis legit (layer cake), which have evolved with the addition of Indonesian spices like cinnamon and cloves. It's also a Muslim majority country so it's hard to find pork dishes in restaurants unless they're run by Chinese Indonesians or you're in a place like Bali, which is predominantly Hindu so the people there eat a lot of pork.
The best known Indonesian dishes are nasi goreng (fried rice) and rendang, a spicy beef curry slowly simmered with coconut milk and various spices until the beef is fall-apart tender and the spices have permeated the meat. No wonder CNN Travel declared it the World's Best Food.
One-third of all Indonesian Americans in the U.S. live right here, in Los Angeles but the population is spread out around the county — and so are the restaurants that cater to them. While other Asian cuisines like Thai, Vietnamese and Filipino have become part of the mainstream American palate, Indonesian food remains an under-the-radar gem. You'll mostly find it at small, hyper-local restaurants that rarely get the kind of exposure that comes with a higher-end restaurant. The sauces are complicated to make and some of the spices are hard to find here, which makes it hard for American chefs to incorporate Indonesian flavors and techniques into their repertoires.
That doesn't mean Indonesian restaurants aren't here. In Los Angeles, several old-school joints catering to Indonesian immigrants have been joined by trendy newcomers aiming to tantalize a wider audience.
What started in 2002 as a small Indonesian grocery store selling takeout boxed lunches expanded into a restaurant that eventually took over the space next door. The place is bustling with students and Indonesian families, who come for the reliable rendang and the fried oxtail soup. Don't miss the pepes ikan, a mixture of milkfish and spices steamed in a banana leaf. Simpang Asia also has a menu of Indonesian desserts including es teler, crushed ice with young coconut, jackfruit and avocado. The strip mall's parking lot can get crazily crowded with double-parked cars so it's worth valeting your vehicle for $2.
- 10433 National Blvd., West L.A. 310-815-9075.
A favorite among San Gabriel Valley residents, Sate House boasts some of the best nasi goreng around. The fried rice is tossed in shrimp paste, which gives it a special savory flavor, along with chicken, pork, shrimp and a fried egg. The satays are also great. They're served with a mix of peanut sauce and sweet soy sauce while the spicy fried rice gets an extra dose of umami from the shrimp paste. Operated by Chinese-Indonesians, the restaurant is non-halal and so don't miss their pork satay. The family-style portions are large and the restaurant is cash only.
- 812 Nogales St., Walnut. 626-582-7726.
Borneo Kalimantan Cuisine
Opened in 2010, this may be the only restaurant in Los Angeles, if not the country, specializing in the cuisine of Kalimantan, known in the U.S. as Borneo. Located in the northern part of Indonesia, Kalimantan is the largest island in Asia and borders Malaysia. Its food is heavily influenced by its Malay and Chinese population. Borneo Kalimantan Cuisine primarily serves noodle dishes like kwe tiaw goreng and mie hokkien, reflecting the island's Chinese Hokkianese and Hakkanese population. Try the mi karet. The name means "rubber noodle" and is an apt description of the thick, chewy noodles that can be served Hakka style (with fish balls, fish cakes, barbecued pork and marinated egg) or Hokkien style (with chicken, mushroom, barbecued pork and marinated egg).The space is small and the restaurant is getting popular so be prepared to wait for a table if you show up at peak times between 6:30 and 9 p.m.
- 19 S. Garfield Ave., Alhambra. 626-282-4477.
One of the oldest Indonesian restaurants in Los Angeles, Ramayani in Westwood has been serving an extensive menu of classic dishes since 1983. Traditional gamelan music plays in the background. Ramayani is also the one restaurant where you can order rijsttafel, an elaborate dish adapted by the Dutch during the colonization of Indonesia. For rijsttafel, or "rice table", several dishes are served in small plates with rice as the central attraction. It's a great way for those unfamiliar with the cuisine to sample various dishes — like rendang and gado gado (Indonesian salad with peanut sauce) — at once.
- 1777 Westwood Blvd., Westwood. 310-477-3315.
Opened in Little Tokyo earlier this year, Kasih is the city's first Indonesian restaurant with an open kitchen, a full bar and a DJ. Launched by Vindex Tengker, a judge on Master Chef Indonesia, it features a thoughtful menu that introduces Angelenos to Indo cuisine. The menu helpfully lists the region where each dish originated. If you think all chili sauces are the same, check out the sambal (chili sauce) tasting and discover the different flavors lurking underneath the heat. Or go for Tengker's contemporary take on babi guling (Balinese suckling pig), served as pork belly with strips of crackling skin, a side of chayote chicken broth and urap, a Balinese salad of steamed vegetables and grated coconuts. Cocktails like the Kuno Old Fashioned, made with banana-infused bourbon and palm syrup, are also influenced by the spices of Southeast Asia.
- 200 S. Los Angeles St., downtown L.A. 213-266-8156.
This small, unassuming strip mall joint boasts the best nasi bungkus, a rice dish wrapped in banana leaf and served with a variety of stews and sides. Each order is topped with rendang, fried chicken, spicy egg balado, vegetable curry and sambal. This rice combo is a popular take-out lunch item in Indonesia, with the banana leaf wrap making it easy to transport. Toko Rame is also one of the only places serving sate padang, Sumatran-style beef tongue satay in a spicy sauce. Parking is limited and it fills up on weekends, so come early or be prepared to hunt for a metered street spot.
- 17155 Bellflower Blvd., Bellflower. 562-920-8002.
While Bone Kettle isn't exclusively an Indonesian restaurant, it features dishes inspired by Indonesian chef/owner Erwin Tjahyadi's childhood home. There's gado gado, the local version of salad with peanut sauce, and char kway teow, stir-fried wide noodles popular among Chinese Indonesians. Tjahyadi also brings Indonesian flavors into new dishes like rendang rice fritters, chicken wings and durian crème brulee.
- 67 N. Raymond Ave., Pasadena. 626-795-5702.
Many of the dishes at this modern restaurant were developed by opening chef Harryson Tobing, a native of Sumatra. After leaving Indonesia in 2001, he cooked his way around the country and the Persian Gulf, finally settling in Los Angeles. Wallflower's menu is divided into snacks, traditional dishes, Chinese-Indonesian dishes and Tobing's own take on Southeast Asian cooking. If you're there for dinner, try the rib wings (fried beef ribs tossed in sweet chili sauce and sesame seed) and tahu gejrot (fried tofu with tamarind sauce). At brunch, try the porridges, whether you opt for a savory chicken porridge or a sweet black rice one served with pandan-coconut cream and banana.
- 609 Rose Ave., Venice. 424-744-8136.