Classics offer a 101 in Indonesian cuisine.
Photos: Jill Paider
When a couple at Angin Mamiri asked their server if the West Rogers Park restaurant’s Indonesian food was similar to Thai or Indian, the response was a prideful “Neither...it’s its own thing.” You can’t really blame the couple—Indonesian is the needle in Chicago’s culinary haystack, so diners truly have no point of reference. Now that the Rukli family has turned a catering company into a restaurant, they do.
The server is right: Indonesian food is indeed unique. But diners might recognize satays and sauces co-opted by Thai spots that dip south into the Sunda Islands. Chile heads will find Indonesian cuisine lacking punch, what with the tendency to drape sugared-up peanut sauce on anything standing still (even the soy sauce, kecap manis, is sweetened). But sriracha is on every table, and a few squirts of it here and there adds interest and balance.
For a whirlwind tour of Indonesia’s greatest hits, start with gado-gado, a salad of watercress, snappy green beans, carrot slivers, boiled eggs and tofu squares, doused with peanut sauce and meant to be piled onto krupuk, crunchy shrimp-rice flour crackers. More exotic for most is the coto makassar, a beef tripe soup meant to be customized with housemade sambal chile paste, crispy garlic and fresh lime.
Should someone in your crowd wrinkle their nose at tripe, move on to the lamb or beef satays (pictured); both deliver full flavor with no fear factor and arrive with lontong, compact cubes of twice-cooked rice perfect for sopping up the trifecta of the meat’s juices, kecap manis and, yes, more peanut sauce.
It’s essential to finish an Indonesian meal with es teler, a parfait glass of avocado, jackfruit (the love child of a pineapple and a mango) and coconut three ways—chewy cubes, soft ribbons and refreshing juice. Shaved ice and a drizzle of sweet condensed milk complete this tropical sundae. Last tip: Don’t leave without a bag of housemade rempeyek kacang, savory peanut brittle flavored with kaffir lime leaf. A bag goes for five bucks, but once you get home and start snacking, beer in hand, you’ll wish you’d bought at least two.