Thursday, October 14, 2010

A Taste of Indonesia at Wong Java House

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 House on Valley Boulevard and the eight-year-old Indo Kitchen on Main Street, there are now two Indonesian restaurants located in Alhambra. Considering there are only a handful of Indonesian restaurants in the Los Angeles County, Alhambra 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 largest concentration of Indonesians in the United States, at roughly 50,000, and, according to the Indonesian Consulate, Alhambra is home to one of the largest percentages of that population. 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). The consulate explained that the reason for the concentrated settlement in the Western San Gabriel Valley is because of the inclination of Asian immigrants to move to where their relatives are already settled. And Alhambra is located not far from the Bethany Church of Alhambra Indonesian Assembly of God, one of over 40 churches in Los Angeles. Even though the country is predominantly Muslim, Chinese Indonesians tend to be Buddhist and Christian.  

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 lemongrass 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.

Wong Java House 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.

In July 2010, after hiring chefs who cook regional foods from the Indonesian islands of Jakarta, West Java, and East Java, Kurniawan and Hendra opened Wong Java House, which translates to People (Wong) of the Java House 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 fileted 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 fileting 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.

Wong Java
1936 W. Valley Blvd.
Alhambra, CA 91803

This article can also be found on the Alhambra Source.

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  1. Thanks for the thorough write up, Ev! I always love learning about the people that inhabit our city. I imagine there will be more Indo restos popping up in Alhambra in the coming years. Yay for that!

  2. Hello! Yulree here. I've been missing Indonesian food like crazy. Especially some rightly done sate. Definitely putting this restaurant on my must-try list.

  3. Very nice, thanks for the information.

  4. @jackteja on twitterAugust 23, 2011 at 4:02 PM

    my singaporean friends RAVE about the fried chicken at wong java. they drive from ctown & west la to get it almost every week. there's also a light curry vegetable soup that they always order. reminds them of home they said.