J. Kenji López-Alt, who runs the Food Lab blog at Serious Eats, occasionally sheds light on some questionable concoctions. He once wrote a piece recommending deep-frying quesadillas stuffed with deli turkey meat and Brussels sprouts. In general, though, López-Alt’s taste reflects a careful consideration of food. He may like turkey-Brussels sprout quesadillas, but he also wrote that Chengdu Taste is the best Sichuan restaurant in America, which is something we can all understand, if not fully support.
López-Alt once wrote a piece in which he reflects on a trip to Indonesia. He admits that “he wasn’t a huge fan of the food in Java” and describes Indonesian street food in general as unfresh, the meat dishes too dry and most dishes too sweet or lacking quality ingredients. This claim, in my experience, is shortsighted; Indonesia, especially Indonesian Borneo, can offer some life-altering food experiences — perfectly stretched Hokkien noodles, remarkable versions of laksa, amazingly fresh seafood in even the grimiest street stalls — even if finding it requires a more dogged pursuit than in, say, China or Vietnam, where one can stumble upon transformative flavors blindfolded.
López-Alt goes on to identify Indonesia’s most consistently redeeming street food as martabak, a kind of stuffed, layered roti dish that can contain savory items such as eggs and green onions or sweeter options like chocolate or even Nutella. These street stalls exist throughout Indonesia, Malaysia and much of the rest of Asia and the Middle East. And you can find a very similar Burmese dish, kima platha, at Daw Yee Myanmar Cafe in Monterey Park.
My own memories of martabak are fairly positive. Grabbing a martabak with Nutella in Indonesia — for a few cents, no less — is much like buying a crepe off the street in Paris. It’s hard to dislike, even if it’s questionable whether it should be crowned the king of Indonesia’s frequently awesome street food. I had forgotten about it until I read López-Alt's piece, so my first instinct was to search for it in Los Angeles and reconsider it.
My search led to me, unsurprisingly, to West Covina's Martabak Café, which serves not the martabak that López-Alt and I had become familiar with but rather Indonesia’s and Malaysia’s martabak manis (also known as apam balik). In the literal sense, it's a pancake, in that it’s a cake griddle-cooked in a pan. The martabak manis at Martabak Cafe is currently sold only as a whole cake rather than by the slice, and it runs about $15 depending on the fillings, which range from Nutella to durian.
The interior texture and look is almost like a sponge cake, and when combined with traditional fillings — chocolate, nuts and cheese — it almost tastes like cheesecake. Whatever it is, martabak manis is not the stuffed roti street snack that also goes by the name martabak in Indonesia. It is very much its own species of cake. If an Indonesian cake filled with chocolate and cheddar cheese doesn't immediately intrigue you, know that it tastes better than it sounds.
I looked for one martabak and came up with another, but I’m perfectly content. The result of my search reminded me of the depth and complexity of Indonesian street food.
Martabak Cafe. 3666 S. Nogales St., West Covina; (626) 810-2606.