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Indonesian Cuisine

An Indonesian Food Court: Great Street Food in West Covina

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Mon, Jun 30, 2014 at 10:48 AM
click to enlarge Laksa at Bethania Depot - JAMES GORDON
  • James Gordon
  • Laksa at Bethania Depot
If you were to find yourself walking at night through the streets of Bali or Kota Kinabalu, you would almost certainly smell food. Sometimes the smell is coming from an individual stall specializing in murtabak or roti or some distinct noodle dish, but it's likely the smell is emanating from a central location where hundreds of stalls congregate. You'll probably smell the food before you see it. You may need to walk through throngs of people selling every item imaginable: used televisions, poorly made handbags, NFL jerseys, handcrafted jewelry, fake jewelry, authentic North Face jackets.

Eventually you'll reach your destination, where the smoke and dust are so thick that you'll need to pause to breathe. Once your eyesight adjusts, you will see roasted ducks, skewers of freshly grilled fish and squid, hanging chickens, steaming bowls of soup and batches of tossed egg noodles, most of it offered for pennies.

The food market concept is ingrained in Southeast Asian culture. On the island of Borneo, the markets are quickly assembled on cracked sidewalks, filled with people and dogs and delicious food. In wealthy Singapore, the markets are rigidly organized, relatively clean and often placed in shopping malls. The food is still delicious.

It's no surprise that something like an Asian food market has been attempted in Los Angeles. That was presumably the idea behind the 626 Night Market, which, with its corporate sponsors and long lines, looks exactly like what you would expect a night market in L.A. to look like. But the true food markets in L.A., at least in spirit, are where local immigrants congregate: the backyards of Burmese in Monterey Park, a parking lot in Duarte where Indonesians gather every Saturday, a small food court in a strip mall in West Covina. 

click to enlarge Ayam penyet at Bethania Depot - JAMES GORDON
  • James Gordon
  • Ayam penyet at Bethania Depot
That strip mall is called Hong Kong Plaza, and its food court, located adjacent to an Asian grocery store, has been recently renovated. Its floors are polished now, and there are little sleek wooden poles around the eating area that give it a modern touch. Looking around at the vendors - a Filipino empanada spot, a Malaysian eatery, a couple Indonesian noodle shops - you may feel like you're in a Singapore shopping mall.

The landscape of the food court has changed, too. There used to be an excellent Malaysian satay spot, where Josephine's empanadas are sold now. There will be a new vendor, Borneo Kitchen, opening in the next couple months. The other three - Bethania Depot, Janty Noodle and Bakmi Parahyangan - have been there for years, serving what is essentially Indonesian and Malaysian comfort food.

There's not much complexity to the food here. Much of Indonesian and Malaysian food relies on the freshness of its ingredients. That's generally enough in Indonesia; ayam penyet, a simple fried chicken garnished with chili sambal, tastes very good when the chicken's head is chopped off a few minutes before the frying. We can assume that's not the case at Hong Kong Plaza, and the food suffers a bit for it, but that's forgivable when there are only a few dozen places on the West Coast that serve ayam penyet in the first place. 

It's possible to introduce yourself to most of the staples of Malaysian cuisine at Bethania Depot, the food court's most ambitious stall, though roti was recently removed from the menu for inexplicable reasons. They do have ayam penyet. There are plates - or, more accurately, styrofoam containers - of common breakfast foods mee goreng and nasi goreng, the former served with fried noodles (mee), the latter with fried rice (nasi). There's gado-gado ("mix-mix"), a sort of salad of pounded rice cakes and boiled egg slathered with a peanut sauce, served at Bethania and the other stalls. 

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