On my daily commute down Valley Boulevard, an inviting new sign caught my eye at a spot that had been a rapidly revolving door to many ethnic cuisines throughout the years. WONG JAVA in capital red letters lined the window. A coffee shop? Nope. Indonesian.
I wasn’t too familiar with Indonesian food, but was pleased that another ethnic cuisine besides Chinese had arrived. Indeed, with Wong Java on Valley Boulevard and the eight-year-old Indo Kitchen on Main Street, there are now two Indonesian restaurants located in Alhambra. In addition, there are a few nearby shops that serves some Indonesian specialties, notably Sam's Nutrition Center in Monterey Park and Tip Top Mart in San Gabriel. Considering only a handful of Indonesian restaurants exist in all of Los Angeles County, the Western San Gabriel Valley could be seen as an emerging mini center for local Indonesian cuisine.
When I did some research, I realized it actually makes sense that Indonesian food would be popping up in Alhambra. Los Angeles County has the greatest number of Indonesians in the United States — at roughly 50,000 — and, according to the Indonesian Consulate, Alhambra is home to one of the largest concentrations. The local settlement consists mainly of Chinese Indonesians. Even though they are only about two percent of Indonesia’s population of roughly 245 million (it’s the worlds fourth most populous country), they are a disproportionate number of local immigrants. One reason is that Chinese Indonesians tend to be relatively affluent and many come to the United States to study. The consulate explained that the reason for the settlement in the Western San Gabriel Valley is because of the inclination of immigrants to move to where their relatives live, and the Chinese Indonesians are attracted to the Asian foods and nearby houses of worship. Although most Indonesians are Muslims, Chinese Indonesians tend to be Christian or Buddhist and various congregations, including a Sunday Catholic mass that draws hundreds from throughout the area, are located in the Western San Gabriel Valley.
As far as I’m concerned, Alhambra as an Indonesian food center is good news. Food Blogger ElmoMonster calls the cuisine the “soul food of South East Asia.” He describes it is as a “heartier version of Thai cuisine.” Like Thai food, coconut milk and lemon grass are employed, but Indonesian cooks add an extra kick with their abundant use of spices, such as coriander, cumin, and galangal. Gourmet Pigs' Fiona Chandra, also an Indonesian native, explains that her native cuisine is influenced by “thousands of islands” and consists of food flavors from many different cultures, so tastes of familiarity from China or Thai can be found in the cuisine.
DEVELOPING FLAVORS AND FINDING THEIR OWN
Wong Java owner Ade Kurniawan said he opened his restaurant to provide more options to the Indonesian community and to change people’s knowledge of Indonesian food. It’s not easy, Kurniawan notes, because a lot of Indonesian ingredients are not available in America. There is a street market in Duarte that specializes in Indonesian foods, though many local Indonesian settle for what they can find at Ranch 99 and other Pan-Asian markets.
Last summer, after hiring chefs who cook regional foods from the Indonesian islands of Jakarta, West Java, and East Java, Kurniawan and Hendra opened Wong Java, which translates to People (Wong) of Java in Indonesian. With no foot traffic or popular restaurants around, they opened their restaurants with faith in their weekly advertisements in two Indonesian magazines, the word of mouth from their friends at church, Facebook, and Yelp.
Kurniawan smiles in the mention of Yelp, where users have agreed that his food is indeed good. After our first time eating Indonesian food (Wesley’s second), we were sold into Ade’s movement.
The Martabak Telor is a fried egg pancake almost resembling a crepe. Two lightly fried layers of flour wrap encase an egg casserole of ground beef and green onions. The savory pancakes are served with a sweet and slightly spicy sauce.
Lumpia is an Indonesian egg roll originating from its capital of Jakarta. The fried egg rolls have chicken, bamboo shoots, and carrots—a twist on Chinese egg rolls which are usually filled with pork. The golden rolls were packed with heat from coming right out of the fryer and served with the same sweet sauce as the Martabak Telor.
The national dish of Indonesia, sate are skewers of meats drizzled with a peanut gravy. Wong Java serves the dish traditionally, with ketupat(rice cakes). The Aneka Sate at Wong Java includes a combination of chicken, lamb, and shrimp satay.
Ikan Goreng Wong Java is prepared and served as a masterpiece. The fried tilapia stands on its belly, sculpted and filleted to look like it was stopped in its swimming tracks before it was fried. Though it tasted slightly fishy, the accompanied sweet soy sauce of chili brought out the light flavors of the moist tilapia. The special filleting of the fish at its top sides exposed the fried, crunchy bones and fins.
The Ayam Goreng Wong Java is fried chicken drunk off an array of spices. The aromatics of this dish is telling to the hour and a half of marinating in spices such turmeric, curry, galangal, and ginger. The marinated chicken and spices are then fried together and served on a stone pot lined with a slightly sweet sambal (chili paste). The results are tender pieces of spicy, lightly batter chicken with the fried spices on the side.
We rounded off our parade of savory foods with a hill of a dessert, the Es Teler. Located under the beverage section of the menu, the dessert is a shaved snow hill covered with jackfruit, syrup, condensed milk, coconut milk, and the kick, sliced avocados, which made the dessert nutty and buttery.