One of the best parts of writing this column is experiencing unfamiliar ethnic cuisines – especially on those outings when there is little clue about what many of the dishes are, even when sitting at a table inside the restaurant and studying the menu.
That happened to a lunch pal and me at the Indo Cafe, the only Indonesian restaurant hereabouts, as far as we can tell. The eight-table outpost is off the main tourist trail in Old Sacramento, near the railroad tracks that parallel Front Street. Outdoor seating is offered in the warmer months.
Much of the menu is quite familiar, with a list of Chinese standards such as egg foo young and sweet ’n’ sour chicken. The Indonesian specialties are a different matter. They go by names that are tricky to pronounce and are seasoned with exotic-sounding spices. Which dovetails with the restaurant’s slogan: “We use spices you’ve never heard of, for flavor you’ll never forget.”
Some of those seasonings are galangal (a citrusy-smelling root related to ginger), candlenut, black kluwak nut, terasi (shrimp paste) and daun salam (Indonesian bay leaf). More recognizable are turmeric, lemon grass, cumin and coriander.
If you wish to add heat to your meal, just say so. Use the handy “guide” that’s posted near the cash register:
“Indonesian hot: We are not responsible.”
“Texas hot: You can probably take it.”
“New York hot: Hot enough for most folks.”
“Ohio hot: They really don’t understand hot.”
“Rhode Island hot: We’re ashamed to say hot.”
The Indo Cafe has some history. About 17 years ago, an Indonesian couple took over a deli in Old Sacramento and turned it into an Indonesian restaurant. Some years later they sold it to another Indonesian couple, who ran it until May 2013, when Jim and Tessa Scaief took over.
Jim is from south Texas and works the front of the house. Tessa is the cook who grew up in Tegal, a city in the Central Java Province of Indonesia, and came up in the family restaurant, learning Indonesian and Chinese cooking from her mother. The from-scratch dishes have a distinct homemade feel and are from family recipes. Jim and Tessa source many of their imported seasonings from local Asian and Mexican supermarkets, and many vegetarian dishes populate the menu.
In Tessa’s repertoire are three sambals (hot relishes; beware the green habanero) and a condiment made from anchovies stir-fried with peanuts and spices. She uses imported “kecap manis,” a mix of reduced soy sauce, palm sugar and spices – an intense, viscous liquid. Think of it as the aged balsamic vinegar of soy sauces.
Indonesia is an island nation (6,000 of them are inhabited) that’s home to 300 ethnicities, which have had an inestimable influence on the cuisine. We were at a loss for what to order at Indo Cafe, but my research had led to a CNN International worldwide online poll that produced a list of the World’s 50 Most Delicious Foods. Three Indonesian dishes were in the top 15, so we chose those.
No. 1 on the poll was “rendang.” Indo Cafe’s spicy beef stew was lush with with flavor and texture. Though the cubes of meat were somewhat dry on our first visit, they were moist and succulent on our second.
The poll’s No. 2 dish was “nasi goreng,” which turned out to be the best stir-fried rice we’ve had, a galaxy away from what’s usually found in Chinese restaurants. The dark rice was flavored with chicken broth, shredded chicken, garlic, celery, onion, mustard leaf, carrot, cabbage and other veggies, with scrambled egg blended in. The kecap manis added a luxurious background taste. A perfectly fried egg was plopped on top.
No. 14 on the list was satay. We dipped skewered chunks of tender-chewy lamb in a pool of kecap manis and alternated bites with steamed white rice.
On another visit, we sampled a tasty trio: marinated fried chicken, “kroket” (a pillow of fried mashed potato filled with beef, peas and carrots) and crispy egg roll.
“The word has gotten around that Tessa’s food is really authentic,” Jim said. “Many of our customers are Indonesians and other Asians, and Indo-Dutch (descendents of the Dutch who colonized Indonesia) who come from the Bay Area (and beyond).”
The other part of the customer base is the tourists who happen to drop in. “They don’t really understand our food,” Jim said. “Our challenge is to educate them.”
We’re eager to get over the learning curve.
Where: 1100 Front St. in Old Sacramento
Hours: Winter hours are 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays. The cafe will be closed Feb. 8-15.
How much: $-$$
Information: 916-446-4008, www.indo-cafe.com