View more photos in Anne Fishbein's “Out Of The Ashes And Into The Urap At Indo Cafe” photo gallery.
Have you ever tasted Indonesian urap? Because if you haven’t, it may be difficult for me to describe the version, which ranks among the most exotic salads in the world, made at Indo Café. The ingredients are straightforward enough: cabbage, blanched bean sprouts and parboiled long beans. The salad is tossed with coconut, then shredded into a rough, pink paste, whose overtones include sweetness and penetrating bitterness, fleeting perfume and a sort of persistent, almost human reek that is akin to the smell of a beaded angora sweater pulled from the bottom of a pile at a vintage shop. If you were going to wear the sweater, you would probably take it to the dry cleaner first, or at least put it in the sink with some Woolite, but we are talking about a salad. The antique scent of the seasoned coconut, which could be fresh galangal, or fermented shrimp paste, or kaffir lime, nestles into the flavor of the long beans like a fitted garment, and the urap is inconceivable without it.
Indo Café, recently reopened, is a conundrum: a user-friendly Indonesian restaurant whose dishes are among the most challenging in town; a gentrified place whose ingredient obsessions and strict adherence to halal make the flavors probably more “authentic’’ than the stripped-down cafés serving a more orthodox clientele. (The first Indonesian restaurant in Palms, it has always served at least as many non-Asians as Indonesians.) I always imagine the competition between Indo Café and the diner Simpang Asia across the street to be something like the Hatfields and McCoys of Westside Indonesian cooking, and the twists aren’t always where you might expect them.
When Simpang Asia, then a tiny Indonesian market, began to sell supercheap steam-table lunches, Indo Café expanded. When Simpang Asia doubled in size, Indo Café redecorated and became almost luxe. When Simpang Asia, which once resembled an Indonesian 7-Eleven furnished with a few plastic tables, began to attract turn-away crowds, Indo Café was charred by an electrical fire, and although signs on the building indicated it was remodeling, nobody really expected to see it open for business again.
But here it is, plush bench seats, dark wood and feng shui for days, screens and antique cabinets, a burbling urn-fountain and soft gamelan music: Indo Café seems like the type of upscale (though not expensive) gado-gado joint you might expect to see in Berkeley or Cambridge but not necessarily in L.A.
If you ever visited the original restaurant, much of the menu will be familiar to you: the crunchy, egg-filled pastry called martabak; a tart tamarind soup spiked with chunks of squash; the chicken soup soured with lemongrass; the laksa Jakarta, something similar to the laksa at local Malaysian restaurants, which is a curried chicken broth filled out with rice noodles and a hard-boiled egg. The fried chicken, cooked with coconut water and brown sugar before its final trip through oil, is particularly good here, with skin as crisp and fine as the top of a crème brûlée and flesh almost turgid with juice, and garnished with a drift of crisp, garlicky debris. The chicken is at its best as ayam penyet, served in a heavy stone vessel with chile sambal and a double helping of sliced cucumber. If you want a peanutty gado-gado salad, fried tempeh or a plate of bakmi goreng like the one you may have had 20 times during the month you spent on the beach in Bali, they’re here, too.
But you could probably scour every Indonesian restaurant in California without finding another nasi bungkus, a sort of TV dinner of sautéed green beans, beef rending and curried chicken wrapped with rice and a fiery green chile paste inside a banana leaf. (The leaf’s green fragrance works its way into the rice even in the few minutes it will be in front of you in the restaurant but is heaven itself unwrapped for lunch the next day.) You can get a handful of strong-smelling pete beans tossed into the plate of chile-smeared shrimp for an extra two bucks, or get skewers of Sumatra-style tongue satay if the merely excellent chicken satay seems too tame. If you’re feeling sentimental, there is a superb version of the traditional wedding rice, nasi kuning, stained bright yellow with turmeric, and garnished with fried chicken, stewed beef and betel-nut chips. Afterward, try an avocado smoothie.
INDO CAFÉ: 10430 National Blvd., L.A. (310) 815-1290. Open Mon.-Thurs., 11:30 a.m.- 9:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sun., 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. D, MC, V. No alcohol. Takeout. Street parking. Halal, vegetarian-friendly. Appetizers $6-$9; main courses, $7-$10. Recommended dishes: martabak, roti canai, fried chicken, nasi bungkus, lontong cap go men.