Fire and Rice

Photos by Anne FishbeinOf the thousands of East Asian restaurants that have disappeared from Los Angeles in the 20 years I’ve been writing this column, one of the most mourned has been Agung, an Indonesian café in a Hollywood mini-mall that specialized in the spicy cooking of the West Sumatran city of Padang. Agung was a small, family-owned restaurant, and almost any time you walked into the place, you would see the proprietor’s mother pounding and stretching fish cake for pempek telor, weighting and marinating milkfish until the bones dissolved, chopping beef for rendang, mixing one of the dozens of fiery house-made sambals.

Dinner at Agung involved beef or chicken fried with belado, a red-hot fresh chile paste; compressed rice cakes; lontong cooked in a coconut broth; and avocado whirred into a sort of fluffy smoothie with a few drops of sweet syrup. It was at Agung that a generation of overeducated Silver Lake misfits learned about bean chips and the glories of sauteed kangkong (or morning glory), curried goat soup and grilled ox-tongue satay, and the mixed-rice plate called nasi Padang. Then one day the family that owned Agung moved back to Sumatra, and although there were still plenty of Indonesian restaurants in town, there was no place to sit down to a really good fish fried Indonesian-style or a crunchy sliver of dengdeng belado. The ’80s, it seemed, were really over.

Chef Jun Yi Ma heats things up.

Now comes Indo Kitchen, a small, crowded restaurant on an Alhambra side street that may not be quite as charming as the old Agung but which serves a brand of Padang-style cooking that may be even sharper, spicier, than the food Agung fans grew up on — meltingly tender slabs of beef rendang bathed in a dense sauce of coconut milk and spices, boiled eggs fried in a fire-breathing coating of belado, whole catfish fried to the crispness of potato chips and served with a mound of sweet, powerful fermented-shrimp sambal.

Indo Kitchen isn’t a fancy place. It is furnished with tables that seem almost randomly scattered across the room, and occasional wall signs announcing a daily special are the only bit that might charitably be considered décor. At certain times of the afternoon, its customer base seems to be mostly high school kids plowing through bowls of chicken noodles and pineapple milkshakes — the prices are low enough to be bearable even on a sophomore’s allowance — and the soundtrack of Sum 41 and Green Day at those times is tailored toward an adolescent’s taste. But when you’re after a specific flavor, when you’re in the mood for a proper nasi Padang, there is nothing like it in Los Angeles.

Indo Kitchen makes an estimable bowl of lontong, loose rice cakes cooked in a spicy chicken-coconut broth and served with a chile-smeared egg, pale lattices of fried shrimp cracker, and bits of taro and jackfruit simmered to a sort of battleship gray. Their supple mie, which looks but does not taste like tangles of Top Ramen noodles, is sauced with a coarse, peppery chop of grilled chicken meat: delicious. The pempek telor Palembang, essentially a fried, egg-stuffed empanada made with house-pounded fish cake in place of a crust, is served in slices, in a thin, sweet soy broth, garnished with diced cucumber. The kangkong belacan, flavored with smoky, toasted fermented-shrimp paste and bits of dried fish, is exactly right.

Fried chicken is one of those dishes that crosses pretty much every culinary border, but the Indonesian take on it is among the best, marinated and steamed to a succulent tenderness, then immersed in hot oil just long enough to sizzle the skin to the delicate snap of the top of a crème brûlée. Indo Kitchen fries chickens in any number of ways, dousing the bird in a sauce that tastes as if it is composed of equal parts Worcestershire sauce and butter, smothering it in dense, sweet soy, coating pieces of it with fire-engine-red belado and serving it as the Indonesian answer to hot wings. The best chicken in the house is probably the ayam bumbu, fried with a coating paste of ground spices and nuts that rains off the bird in brown, garlicky drifts, supernally crisp, pleasantly oily, as hard to ignore as a bowl of freshly roasted macadamia nuts. It is almost impossible to stop snacking on the stuff, scouring burnt crumbs from lettuce leaves with a spoon, buffing the rim of the serving dish with rice, until the plate is shiny as a mirror.

Indo Kitchen, 5 N. Fourth St., Alhambra, (626) 282-1676. Open Tues.-Sun., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Cash only. No alcohol. Lot parking. Dinner for two, food only, $11 $20. Recommended dishes: nasi Padang, ayam bumbu, pempek telor Palembang, kangkong belecan.

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