Why has Indonesian cuisine been just a footnote on the Southern California restaurant scene?
Are the most unique ingredients, like kecap manisa thick soy sauce sweetened with palm sugar, and terasia smelly paste made from fermented shrimp, too exotic?
After being used to Asian stir-fries like beef and broccoli, don’t Americans have room for renderedthe long-simmered beef dish that tastes better the next day when its spices have had a chance to deepen and meld?
And why didn’t he mi ayam – an addictive dish of oil-slicked noodles topped with chunks of chicken – that has become as ubiquitous as ramen? Is it because the soup is served on the side?
Also, what about nasi bungkus, arguably the most popular dish served by the few Indonesian restaurants in Southern California? Don’t they see that banana leaf packaging – which Indonesians used as take-out packaging before the invention of polystyrene – is not only environmentally friendly, but also imparts a slightly sweet botanical flavor to rice and meats it contains?
Why gado gado – a salad slathered in a sweet and spicy peanut sauce and topped with prawn crackers – the dish that has the potential to be the drug of Indonesian cuisine like pho is to Vietnamese, languishing in darkness ? Is it because he is unfortunately not photogenic in the age of Instagram?
The real answer, perhaps, is simple demographics. Although Southern California is home to around 50,000 Indonesians, the largest group in the United States, it’s half the number of Thais and just a fraction of the Vietnamese population. Without a Thai town or equivalent epicenter in Little Saigon for the community, the diaspora is scattered. Therefore, finding an Indonesian restaurant is rare, especially in Orange County where for decades there was none.
Over the past few years, this has slowly changed. A restaurant has opened. Then came another. With the newest Indonesian restaurant opening in Tustin late last year, the most recent tally is three. Although still insignificant compared to most other Asian dishes, the representation of Indonesian cuisine in OC is now the best it has ever been. So, if you don’t know it yet, here’s your chance to discover the cuisine of the fourth most populous country on the planet.
Try one or all of the restaurants listed below. Each is spread across the map so no matter where you live in Orange County, you’re no more than 15 miles away from tasting. gado gado and rendered.
22722 Lambert Street, #1701
Even if you only count the six years that Nataly Michellou has owned and operated, Indo Ranch is the Methuselah of Indonesian restaurants in Orange County. But if you include the time when Indo Ranch operated as a grocery store that stocked prepared meals in a refrigerated crate, that’s been at least a decade — practically an eternity for any restaurant, let alone an Indonesian that exists in the world. leafy, Lake Forest bedroom community.
At the time, the original owner — who still owns and operates the grocery portion — had ambitions to turn the space into a full-service restaurant. These plans never materialized until Michellou came on the scene and bought the restaurant.
With 15 years of experience in the industry and recipes from a mother who had a catering business, Jakarta-born Michellou transformed Indo Ranch into what it is today. It offers a menu with around 50 permanent dishes. They include nasi bungkustwo kinds of mi ayam, and a multitude of desserts. In addition, she scribbles daily specials on a whiteboard which can, on occasion, display nasi gudega uniquely Javanese jackfruit stew served with rice and traditional sides – a dish as inextricably linked to a city called Yogyakarta as New England is to clam chowder.
In the lontong cap go mehfluffy cubes of steamed rice cake called long time hide under lodeh, a light but spicy soup made with coconut milk. Fried chicken and a brick red telor podcast (a fried hard-boiled egg simmered in chilli) crowns the top. The three main components of the dish – the long timethe lodehand the telor podcast – are so unique and exclusive to Indonesian cuisine that it’s impossible to find a more Indonesian meal, even if you’ve tried it.
Indo Ranch has been recently remodeled. Now bifurcated in the middle by a wall made of shelves, the grocery store – which remains Orange County’s main supplier of imported products of Indonesian staples such as Blue Band margarine and tapioca crackers called krupuk – sits to one side. Michellou’s kitchen and dining tables rest on top of each other. The two exist in a symbiotic relationship that serves as a one-stop shop for homesick Indonesian expats.
Uncle Fung Borneo Eatery
7855 La Palma Avenue, Suite 5
Uncle Fung’s Buena Park branch opened in 2018 and, like its sister restaurants in Long Beach and Alhambra, served Indonesian cuisine. But as owner Peter Then hails from Borneo, the island Indonesia shares with Malaysia and Brunei to the north, Peranakan dishes such as laksa are also part of the menu. And this is a good thing.
Even if you count the few Malaysian restaurants in OC, Uncle Fung’s laksa is among the best. A product of the blending of Chinese and Malay cultures, the dish – an intensely spicy noodle soup balanced between the creaminess of coconut milk, the fishiness of shrimp paste and the heat of chillies – is a history lesson in Southeast Asia in a bowl.
But the gado gado here is always Indonesian without compromise, with a nice peanut sauce, tofu, boiled vegetables and a generous sprinkle of crispy shallots. Other dishes, like Ayam Penyet nasi lemakcombine the distinctly Indonesian “smashed” Javanese fried chicken with the coconut milk steamed rice well known as Malaysia’s national dish.
Choosing the best dishes from the region and spreading the gospel of Indonesian cuisine has always been Uncle Fung’s mission. With those ambitions, OC’s second location, Uncle Fung, opened in Santa Ana in early 2019. But the fledgling branch didn’t survive the pandemic. The Buena Park location was also temporarily closed as they were having difficulty with staff.
The food, which can involve up to 15 different ingredients in a dish, required experienced cooks in the kitchen. But as things improve, the Buena Park branch is now making a comeback, and the vital work of introducing Indonesian food to America continues.
608 E. 1st St.
When Semarang-born Daniel Widjaja purchased Salathai Restaurant in Los Angeles’ Chinatown from the original owners in 2005, he left his career in structural engineering behind. Years before deciding to take over the business, he had befriended the owners, learning Thai cooking and catering.
Last year, he was forced to move his restaurant because the building he occupied was going to be demolished to make way for apartments. But with a new location in LA stuck in bureaucracy, he decided to move to Tustin and name his new concept Rice & Noodle. And so Orange County acquired its third and newest Indonesian restaurant.
With a new county, new customers and a new name, Widjaja decided to expand their Thai menu to include food from their homeland. He saw Indonesian cuisine as an opportunity and believed there was an unmet demand. Although he saved the Thai dishes for the uninitiated, he hired a chef from Jakarta to keep the Indonesian dishes flawlessly authentic.
the nasi bungkustopped with rendang, fried chicken, stewed jackfruit, tofu and a hard-boiled egg, also has two kinds of sambal so hot that they activate all the sweat glands. And the peanut sauce that covers his gado gado is as creamy as boiled vegetables are crunchy.
The most basic dish is also the most unabashedly spicy. For the tahu and penyet tempehhis chef is frying the tofu and tempeh (a soybean cake indigenous to the island nation), crushes them flat with a pestle, then serves them in the same stone mortar he used to grind handfuls of chili peppers into sambal. This one will set your mouth on fire.
But for Indonesian foodies, the more the food burns, the louder it resonates. For the few months that Rice & Noodle has been open, the restaurant sees a full house of Indonesians on weekends. Widjaja was right: there is a pent-up demand for more Indonesian restaurants among OC Indonesians. Now if only everyone could give it a shot.
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