Indo Café, West LA – Ticketless Travel to Indonesia

Indo Cafe, West LA - Peanuts

Inspired by Jonathan Gold’s review of the recently remodeled Indo Cafe in West Los Angeles, I reached deep down into the dark, dank recesses of my mind and revisited Indonesia without a passport…

Indo Cafe

10430 National Boulevard (@ Rose Avenue)
Los Angeles, CA, 90034
310.815.1290

It is a well-known fact among friends and family, and I guess here in my Delicious Life, that I don’t fly. It’s not that I’m afraid because I’ve never flown before, nor is it that some sort of traumatic flight experience scarrred me for life. Quite the opposite actually. I flew twice a week, every week, sometimes even more frequently, for almost five years, and it went smoothly every single time. Perhaps I began to think that by increasing the number of times I fly, I was exposing myself to more risk, thereby increasing my chances of being involved in some horrible airline tragedy.

Anyone who has spent even just a half hour at the craps table in the Bellagio knows that statistically, this just isn’t true, no matter what you tell yourself and the last three dollars to your name at 4 am after six “free” vodka/red bulls. The chance of winning does not increase the longer you stand there at the table performing voodoo on the dice. The chance of crashing does not increase the more I fly. I believe it’s something called independent events, and though I didn’t do very well in Stats, I can understand how absolutely ridiculous my aviophobia is. But the problem is exactly that – it is a phobia, and phobias are always irrational.

This no-fly zone in my life poses quite a problem, given my very curious and adventurous palate (that’s “adventurous” in terms of flavors and spices, not animal organs or small creepy crawly things). I want to travel around the world to try new cuisines, but it sure will take a long time by boat and car. So for now, I relegate myself to reading books about faraway foods, trying my hand at international cuisines, watching Tony Bourdain, and dining out at ethnic restaurants that are accessible by non-gravity-defying transportation.

(This whole flying thing is a very urgent, immediate problem, given that somewhere in the great reservationing system in the sky, there is an LAX/ORD ticket with my name on it. In just a few short days, I will be jetting off to make lemonade on Lake Michigan with the whole crate of lemons that Life served me a few weeks ago. Let’s just cross our fingers and hope that xanax truly is God’s gift to human anxiety.)

indo-cafe-salad
If I’m not going to fly, then perhaps the best place to live is right here in L.A. I live in LA, and I might even go so far as identifying myself *gulp* as an Angeleno, but I admit that food-wise, LA has a long way to catch up to New York and San Francisco (and a few other cities, according to Bon Appetit in September). LA isn’t quite top-notch dining-wise, except when it comes to breadth and depth of ethnic cuisines. There is nowhere else in the U.S. where you can travel from (albeit a long, slow, road-enraging drive) from Japan to Thailand to Korea to China and back through Ethiopia, down to Vietnam, swing through Guatemala and El Salvador, complete a circuit around the Mediterranean and still be home in time for Iron Chef at 11 pm. And no, your local mall food court and the Epcot Center do not count.
indo-cafe-shrimp-fritter-plate

indo-cafe-shrimp-fritters

I am willing to bet my passport that LA has at least one representative restaurant from every cuisine around the world. Yes, we have the Asian Majors: Chinese, Japanese and Korean (that’s my K-pride kicking in – calling it a “major”). But there is also a sizable contingency of other Asian cultures like Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, and we can go into as much detail as Nepalese. Recently, I was introduced to Indonesian food at Indo Café.

indo-cafe-salt-pepper

Without knowing anything about Indonesia’s culture, religions, or even topographical geography, I would guess that the cuisine is similar to Indian, simply by word association. When we spotted the Indo Café’s sign driving up National Boulevard, saw the bright red paintjob and faux thatched roof details, sashayed past the tables on the sidewalk
covered with colorful batik printed fabrics, shimmied through a doorway hung with strands of beads and sat down at a small table against a bamboo-lined wall around a room with island-inspired accents, I knew it was going to be less like Indian and more like…I had no idea.

Our server was dressed in a long, white tunic made of a sheer, linen-like fabric, what I am going to assume is traditional Indonesian clothing. She handed us menus, poured glasses of water, and left behind a tiny square dish of seasoned peanuts. As deliciously oily as they were, they must have been fried, or at least sauteed, with peanut oil, red pepper, and salt. It was a little appetizer that was incredibly addictive.

Indo Café’s entire menu was new to me. I recognized some ingredients and preparation techniques, but names of dishes, flavor combinations, and even certain spices and herbs were foreign. I had no idea where to start, but we thought the section called “Appetizers” would work. LOL! We debated between a tofu dish and and shrimp cakes, and eventually, deep-fried delight won out over health. To help us get through the rest of the decision-making process for the main event, the server brought us small salads of plain Romaine lettuce dressed with an incredibly sticky sweet, lightly piquant dressing. The fried strips of won ton skin on top won me.

The server had described the shrimp cakes to us, which sounded to me like they would be the shrimp equivalent of a crabcake. When they came to the table, I was first surprised by how many there were (that’s a lot for an appetizer!) and second by what they looked like. They didn’t look like the typical chubby disk-shaped cakes coated with breadcrumbs and fried deeply golden-brown. The shrimp cakes were amorphous blobules of thick, tempura-like batter mixed with chopped shrimp and vegetables. They were more like fritters than cakes. They were obviously deep fried, but looked a little pallid, and when split open with the side of my fork, I understood why. They looked like they could have used about 30 seconds longer in the deep fryer. I took a bite, and though the seasoning in the batter was good, it only hinted at shrimp, and was suspiciously doughy and sticky. Dipped in the accompanying sauce, it was better, but only marginally. For the main event, I asked the server what was popular. She pointed me toward a chicken dish. I asked her if it was spicy. She said no, so I asked her for another recommendation, which again, I asked whether it was spicy. She said no. I guess I hadn’t made it clear that I am Kimchee Spice, the long-lost member of that girl band, so I asked for a third recommendation, this time explicitly asking for something spicy. She nodded slowly in understanding, and said they could make anything spicy. I ordered the chicken.

indo-cafe-plate

indo-cafe-sauce

The dish came out in a lovely presentation, with my choice of fried rice (as opposed to white rice) molded into a perfect dome, a springroll, chicken garnished with deep-fried peppers and vegetables like confetti, and a small shallow bowl of marinated vegetables in juice. This might also have been a dipping sauce for the springroll, but I am not quite sure – I ate the vegetables like they were pickles (that’s my kimchee habit). The springroll, unlike the shrimp cakes, had been fried to a golden, flaky crisp. I was expecting the fried rice to be salty because it was such a dark brown, but it wasn’t. In fact, I don’t even like fried rice but Indo Cafe’s tasted pretty good to me. It was a little different from the usual Chinese restaurant fried rice, though I can’t tell you specifically how it’s different.

indo-cafe-hot-sauce

As dark and faintly tinted red as it was, I was expecting the chicken to be quite spicy, so I braced myself for the rush of glowing heat. Apparently, because I didn’t order the chicken and say, “Make it hot, Baby!” in the same breath, the chicken was not made spicy at all. I was mildly disappointed, but asked for hot sauce. The chicken was a fairly large piece of breast on the bone, marinated then grilled. It was tender, though a little dry (it is chicken breast after all), and well-seasoned, but sans spice. The hot sauce was not the sriracha or sambal I was expecting, but a small dish of a fairly thick brownish red paste that looks a bit like Korean dehn-jahng. It wasn’t bad, but I was a little unprepared for the strongly fishy fragrance that wafted up behind my eyeballs. I think it was sambal mixed with fish sauce.

indo-cafe-beef-plate

indo-cafe-beef

The other dish was beef, and dammit I need some serious help with names here (and with everything else, for that matter). Again, it was in the same lovely presentation with a dome of white rice, a spring roll, and the bowl of pickled vegetables. The beef was almost spherical, weeping out from underneath a translucent reddish orange oil into a shimmering pool on the plate. The beef had an interesting texture on the outside, and I think I might have used the word “furry.” I couldn’t quite figure out what was giving it that appearance, whether it was some sort of coating that had been added, or whether it was the flesh itself, long beef fibers breaking down from an extended braise into baby tendrils. The beef was still on the bone, but cooked long enough to pull away from the bone without much resistance. The actual meat was tender to the teeth and had an earthy, yet tangy flavor that I can’t describe other than…earthy and tangy.

The cuisine is sort of Chinese on Gilligan’s Island having a side affair with Thai. There’s a lot of seafood, a lot of grilling, lots of interesting spices and soy sauce with a noticeable emphasis on sour, though not like the Thai use of lime, as well as sweet. I liked Indo Café
enough to go back to the restaurant and try some the other dishes, with an explicit request for serious spice. I might even hit up Ramayani, another Indonesian restaurant in Westwood for a broader experience. However, I didn’t love Indonesian cuisine enough to hop on the next flight out to Jakarta. I’ve got to make that three and a half hour flight to Chicago first. A three hour tour…a three hour tour…

Who else traveled to Indonesia via Indo Cafe?

~ Jonathan Gold recommends: martabak, roti canai, fried chicken, nasi bungkus, lontong cap go men.
~ Potatomato has a great photo of the crushed ice and raspberry Syrup dessert Es Campur
~ EatingLA liked the spiciness but could have taken more
~ Back in 2005, it was an la.foodblogging favorite, and again in 2006
~ Foodie Universe says it’s a great introduction to Indonesian cuisine

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  • abraxis

    Yay, I’m the first comment!!!

    Hmmmmm.

    How about a Peranakan restaurant in LA? Ain’t got one up here in SF…

    Last time I was in Singapore (got there by plane), I ate at a Peranakan restaurant.

    It was spicy and verrry different!
    Mmmmmm.

  • sarah

    hello abraxis! hm..you definitely got me there. i don’t even have any idea what peranakan is!!

    but if it’s spicy, i must find out more about it!

  • elmomonster

    Hi Sarah,

    Being from Indonesia, I loved reading this. It’s like as if you were to read a post from someone eating Korean food for the first time. A perspective of my native cuisine through unbiased eyes.

    That said, however, I’m not sure you got a good representative sample of Indonesian food. You hit on some of them…that fried rice is called “nasi goreng”…which literally translates to “fried rice”…whodathunk! The one thing that usually separates it from Chinese or Thai Fried Rice is that a gloopy, thick, sweet soy sauce called “Kecap Manis” is used, rendering a deeply sweet flavor and murky dark color.

    Another ubiquitous dish at Indonesian restaurants is that hunk of beef you had, called “Rendang”. It’s simmered long and hard in spices, namely turmeric and coconut milk.

    The few things that puzzled me was the salad and the appetizer you had. The salad, sounds like Chinese/American more than anything and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like those fritters before. Although they might have been a regional specialty, if I would have to guess, they are called “Udang Gimbal”, which is usually served with a thinned out Kecap Manis sauce spiked with raw garlic. And unlike the version you had, it’s supposed to be crisp and crunchy, with nary any mushy parts in it.

    I haven’t been to Indo Cafe, but judging by the dishes you had, it seems that Indo Kitchen in Alhambra might be more authentic by a hair. Of course, Indo Kitchen did serve me a bento box with not even a morsel of Indo food on it.

    Here’s my review of Indo Kitchen

    In any case, thanks for the fun review, as always!

  • sarah

    wow! i had no idea there were indonesian people on sesame street, elmo! ;)

    thanks so much for your help with the names of the dishes! i am really excited to go back and try more stuff, thoughi AM surprised that i liked the beef and it had coconut milk! one of the reasons i don’t looove thai food is the combo of coconut milk, lime, and lemongrass.

    i think indo kitchen might be a little far for me (i am so geographically spoiled), so next stop is ramayani.

  • Silviav

    I’d say Ramayani isn’t much better than Indo Cafe, it is a bit pricier. I do feel that you could’ve had a better experience at Indo Cafe. They have 2 different chefs and one is notoriously better than the other. That salad you had isn’t exactly Indonesian. A more well-known Indo salad is called Gado Gado, which (should) consist of spinach, green cabbage, chinese green beans, bean sprouts, fried Tofu, hard boiled eggs, shrimp crackers and sweet and salty peanut dressing.
    Next time you’re feeling adventurous, order this thing called ‘Rijstafel’ It is roughly the equivalent to ordering prie fix of several dishes in small amounts. It’ll include appetizers and dessert according to what’s stated on the menu or chef’s choice. I think that’ll give you a good exposure of what Indonesian food is like.
    Don’t be shy in letting the server know that you want it very spicy, most ethnic restaurants americanized its spicy standard. Indo spices can be wonderful to those who have a knack for it. If done right, it’s got a different punch than any other ethnic spices in its same horizon.

    Also, give ‘Banana Leaf’ at the Grove a try. It’s Singaporean food, similar to Indonesian, I liked it.

  • sarah

    hey silviav! thanks for the heads up about ramayani…no need to spend added $$$ for the same experience. but then again, it IS closer to me :)

    is the banana leaf one of the restaurants in the farmers’ market? what would you recommend as far as singaporean cuisine? someone actually just mentioned to me that they believed that singaporean cuisine was actually fairly bland. ?? no way of knowing until i try it out myself, i guess!

  • Anonymous

    Indo Cafe is alright, IMO. I recommend the little grocery store across the street, called Simpang Asia. It’s strictly no-fuss food, they won’t even give you “real” cutlery or plates — plastic and styrofoam.

    Go for lunch one day, get one of the several rice plates on the menu. Nasi Rames Padang, is usually a good starter. If they have Nasi Warteg on the “specials” board, that’s even better. You get to sample four or five dishes on one plate.

    Don’t forget the ice avocado drink. :)

  • sarah

    anaonymous: i saw simpang asia when we went to indo! and i totally remember thinking to myself that maybe we should go there instead because it looked like there were a LOT of people there for lunch!

    iced avocado drink? i always wondered about that…how avocado would taste as a beverage. is it sweet? for some reason, sweetened pureed avocado doesn’t sound that good, but i’m willing to give it a try :)

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