Photo by Anne Fishbein
In that peculiar corner of Palms where National Boulevard runs at right angles to itself, next door to a mini-mart locally famous for its offer of a free smoothie to anyone presenting a ticket stub from The Passion of the Christ, Simpang Asia is a small Indonesian grocery with a Web site, a huge selection of Japanese candy and boxes piled neatly to the ceiling. The shop is what I’d imagine a 7-Eleven in Sulawesi might look like, immaculate shelves of chile peanuts, dried squid and juice boxes of starfruit drink, kilo bags of fried shallots, and more flavors of instant noodles than you may have known existed. Neighborhood kids drop in, carefully counting dimes for their rations of Pocky sticks or Japanese bubblegum. UCLA students haul off caseloads of ramen. Simpang Asia is almost exotic in its nonexoticism.
A few years ago, Los Angeles was home to a fairly sizable Indonesian student population, engineering post-docs and future financiers; but when the Southeast Asian crash hit a few years ago, the dollar value of the ringgit dropped off a cliff and a huge proportion of the students were forced to move back home. The number of Indonesian restaurants in the Los Angeles area dwindled to fewer than half of what it had been in the early ’90s. The students who remained tended to be dramatically poorer.
So although Simpang Asia sits directly across the street from Indo Café, probably the best Indonesian restaurant on the Westside and in no way expensive, the shop’s owners apparently sensed a niche for an even cheaper place to eat, the equivalent of an Indonesian rumah makan — that level of eating place that is not quite street food yet not quite a restaurant, with a few tables, a few rice combination plates on offer, and a big takeout business. Serving neither refined restaurant cooking, nor greasy-spoon clichés like gado-gado and nasi goreng, nor even the rough-and-ready regional dishes that are the specialties of some local cafes, Simpang Asia features more or less the equivalent of Indonesian home cooking, the sort of meal you might expect a talented home cook to throw together when one of her children shows up with a couple of unannounced friends for dinner.
Simpang Asia isn’t quite set up to operate as a restaurant — the cooks make great use of the kitchen at the bakery next door — and not everything on the menu will be on hand at any one time. I have never been able to time a visit to coincide with the availability of lontong, a delicious compressed-rice cake usually served in a vegetable curry sauce, and I have never been able to determine whether the satay Padang is the traditional version made with organ meats and a kind of white sauce or another thing entirely. (The satay babi, compact pork kebabs grilled to order, are excellent.) Ayam kalasan, an ultra-crisp fried chicken marinated in coconut water and turmeric, is very tasty, but the chicken dishes on the specials board have been eluding me for months.
The principal unit of consumption at Simpang Asia is nasi rames, a foam container full of boiled rice topped with small portions of three or four dishes, a dab of some homemade chile sambal or another, and a Baggie of pale-pink shrimp chips, which look a little like Styrofoam packing material but are ideal for scooping up some stew. The basic nasi rames here includes white rice, a bit of yellow chicken curry, a spoonful of tofu cooked with the firmer soybean cake called tempeh, and a chunk of the spicy simmered beef called rendang. Nasi uduk is more or less the same thing, except that the rice is flavored with lemongrass and coconut milk, and the chicken is fried instead of sautéed. Nasi kuning is built around a sort of mushy, turmeric-yellow rice. Nasi gudeg, a version from central Java, includes chicken, savory young jackfruit and a hard-boiled egg that have been simmered with sweet soy sauce until they reach an identical shade of pinky beige. In nasi rames Padang, from the famous spicy-food region in Western Sumatra, the cook throws in a chiled egg and jackfruit curry. All of these versions come packaged to take home or to eat at one of the plastic tables near the front of the store. None of them costs as much as $6. And the Indonesian ice desserts — brown-sugar-flavored cendol, avocado smoothies, stinky durian ice — may be, more or less, the Indonesian equivalent of what comes out of a Slurpee machine, but they are very, very good.
Simpang Asia, 10433 National Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 815-9075, www.veryasia.com. Lunch and dinner, Mon.-Fri., 10 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. No alcohol. Takeout. Lot parking. D, MC, V. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $10–$13.