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The Indonesian Cold Remedy

20 Sep

Minang Asli
86-10 Whitney Avenue

The snowflakes were falling heavily when I exited the Elmhurst Avenue subway station. On the other side of Broadway was Winnie’s Bar while across the street from the station was the Hong Kong Supermarket. It all looked eerily familiar and when I noticed Taste Good restaurant nestled next to the supermarket, it was like déjà vu all over again. I was in the exact same location when we last convened and dined at Taste Good.

As I navigated the dark, snowy streets to our next destination, chosen by Eugene, the Indonesian Minang Asli, I realized that our previous three restaurants were of the Asian bent, including the Malaysian, Taste Good, the Vietnamese Bronx find, World of Taste Seafood, and the Upper East Side fusion of  Korean, Japanese, Thai, Chinese, and Vietnamese, Buddha Bbeeq. Not that I was complaining.

Zio was shivering outside the small restaurant when I arrived. Why he was standing outside freezing when there were three very gracious Indonesian women in the otherwise empty restaurant gesturing for him to come in, was beyond me. To escape the cold, I needed no prodding and he followed me in.

A small electric heater struggled to add a little warmth to the chilly, non-descript dining room. We were told we were expected; Eugene had called ahead to reserve a table for what was to be a party of five. Rick had already excused himself on account of a corporate holiday celebration that, incredibly, did not require the guests bring their own bottle. Free food and drinks during these dismal days?* Who could blame him for going with the free stuff despite having to endure the obviously fake giddiness he would most likely encounter?

Zio and I waited for the others to arrive in the cold confines and then, after about fifteen minutes of waiting, Zio blurted, “I’m starving!” We ordered beef stew soup and pempek palembang, also known as deep fried fish cake in a sweet and sour vinegar sauce. Gerry, Eugene, and Mike from Yonkers, who commuted together from Westchester arrived just as one of the three aforementioned waitresses brought soup bowls and what we thought was soup.

Pempek palembang: soup it is not.

In our frozen delirium, not to mention our unabated hunger, we spooned the dish into the bowls and began to eat. I wondered why the soup was cold and then realized that we actually were spooning the fish cakes and sauce into our mouths instead of the soup, which came a few minutes later. Were the three Indonesian women giggling because we had just made fools of ourselves? Maybe so, but our gaffe didn’t faze Zio who continued to slurp at the cold vinegar sauce. I was less concerned about our faux pas when I glanced at Minang Asli’s menu and noticed its proclamation to “leave your manners behind, and eat your heart out.”.

The standard in Indonesian food was set a few years back at nearby Upi Jaya and, despite ultimately developing calluses on our intestinal tracks that have since come in handy when confronting the extreme heat of chili peppers that we so often endure in our adventures, we were initiated to the pleasures of Indonesian cuisine, and most notably, the signature dish, beef rendang. It was the gauge to measure an Indonesian restaurant’s authenticity. Would they prepare the dish in the uncompromising, harshly spiced manner it is meant to be prepared or would they soften the blow; alter it somewhat to appease the Anglo tongue?  We unanimously agreed to find out.

Beef rendang: the measuring stick of Indonesian suthenticity.

Maybe it was because my aforementioned intestinal track had been callused, but Minang Asli’s version of beef rendang seemed a tad milder than the one I remembered at Upi Jaya and only for that reason was it a close second to what we experienced years back.

You never quite know Mike from Yonkers’ reasoning, and when he resolutely put the menu down and said, “Gotta have the brains,” meaning the menu option of beef brains stewed in lemongrass flavored coconut milk, we knew better than to dig any deeper into his already complicated psyche.

One brain left

Gerry was disappointed the kale leaves were not available, but settled instead on the jackfruit, a starchy, blander and less juicy or tart version of a pineapple. To please Zio we ordered the whole fried red snapper in a lime and soy marinade and added another Indonesian/Malaysian staple; gado gado, a traditional dish of mixed vegetables in a peanut and sweet soy sauce.

The noodles we ordered, a lo-mein-like dish, was a disappointment but not enough to stop us from cleaning the platter. In fact, all that remained on our table was a solitary beef brain—its creamy consistency an acquired taste that, apparently, most of us, including Mike from Yonkers who ordered it, had not acquired.

No one had entered the restaurant during our meal and the owner/chef, her coat on, thanked us for coming and announced that now that we had finished, she could go home.

The food must have brought out Eugene’s reflective nature when, looking up at the television where Snoopy was decorating his dog house with Christmas lights, he sighed. “Imagine,” he said, “us all alone here in Queens, in this Indonesian restaurant with ‘Charlie Brown’s Christmas’ on the television.”

We didn’t have much to add to his comment so we slowly gathered our coats and headed out into the cold.

Dining entertainment

*This was December, 2008, and just months after the Wall Street meltdown of that year.

Spice Tsunami

22 Feb

Upi Jaya, of which I have written of below, was our first experience as a group with Indonesian food. We still had not replaced Charlie and for this venture were only four. After eating at Upi Jaya, I think those of us that were present were unanimous in proclaiming the restaurant, along with Tandoori Hut and Malaysian Rasa Sayang as our top three places in the three years we had been gathering for these dinners.


Upi Jaya
76-04 Woodside Aveue


Upon awakening the morning after eating at Upi Jaya my youngest son shrieked, my wife cowered, and the dog sniffed curiously around me. It was as if there had been a full moon and I had been out all night stalking fresh meat in the forest. There was a raw, coarse odor permeating from my pores; something earthy, yet not of this earth.

It has been a very tough year for Indonesia. The tsunami devastated many of the islands and the earthquake last month added another tragic punch. We’ve all donated to tsunami relief, but I thought that bringing our intrepid group to eat at this Indonesian restaurant in Elmhurst, Queens, one of only five in New York, would, in some small way, help the suffering economy thousands of miles and half a world away. And at the same time we would be satisfying our collective consciences, we would be happily filling our already bloated stomachs.



Rick was a late scratch so there were only four of us for this outing, but Som, the owner of Upi Jaya and a very helpful host, had a table ready. He was anxious for us to try Indonesian cuisine and pleased that we were the adventurous types who were willing to take on anything. And here that meant pulling no punches when it came to the spice meter. None of us had really ever had authentic Indonesian food, so just about everything on the menu was virgin territory. We left the ordering in Som’s very capable hands.

While we waited for our food, Indonesian Karaoke tracks with videos were playing on the television. With the words slowly displayed on the screen, we soon were getting the hang of the tricky Malay language spoken in Indonesia. But the music and the videos were, after a bit, just a distraction to the food. To start, Som brought out one of the specialties of the house, gado gado, a mixed salad smothered in a spicy, though not hiccup-inducing, peanut sauce—kind of an Indonesian cole slaw. Along with the salad, we had pempek kapal selam, a broiled fish cake with a cooked egg yolk inside, served in a hot and sour, cold soup like sauce, and the one familiar item on the menu, beef sate, though the dark, spicy peanut sauce was different than what I’ve had in Thai and Malaysian restaurants.



The most famous item on the menu, according to Som, was rending padang, pieces of beef rubbed in a fiery paste and slow cooked to absolute tenderness. We ordered the small portion, which was more than enough for our group especially since, with the heat in the dish  being truly volcanic, a little went a very long way. Then there were the curry beef ribs in a chili/garlic coconut milk sauce and shrimp broiled and cooked with chopped chili peppers. The only relief for the spice assault was the white rice—and that, with shaved fried garlic bits on top, even had a bite to it. Finally, Som recommended a vegetable which we, thinking it would be a cooling alternative, gladly agreed to. But we should have known better; the sayur daun singkong, a soup of kale and coconut leaf also had a sizzling snap to it.

The waiter kept the water coming, but it did nothing to diminish the heat in our mouths. Some might think eating hot spicy food like what was served at Upi Jaya is a masochistic experience, but they are wrong. If done right, as it was here, the experience is thrilling; almost cleansing in a way. We were having food that yes had intense heat, but it also had intense flavor and for the first time all winter, at least temporarily, my sinuses actually seemed clear. But would I risk a night banished from the bed and quarantined from my children to repeat the experience? I think, for another taste of the amazing rending padang, I might just risk it and I’m sure, if necessary,  Zio would allow me refuge at his Astoria love shack.



Upi Jaya is, thankfully, still in business but I, unfortunately, have never been back since that early spring evening in 2005. A big mistake on my part and one I hope to rectify very soon.

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