It’s not every day that an Indonesian restaurant opens up in Martin Scorsese and David Bowie’s hood.
Wayan, helmed by chef Cedric Vongerichten, has been featured three times by The New York Times since February of this year, which is remarkable in a city with over 24,000 restaurants. Nolita, known for the annual festival The Feast of San Gennaro, The Godfather Part II, and the International Center of Photography Museum, is now also known for nasi goreng, gado gado, and bakwan.
And. We have to say. Wayan is delicious.
But — while it is an ode to Indonesian flavors and ingredients, it’s not exactly Indonesian. It describes itself, after all, as “Indonesian cuisine with a modern French flair.” And, it’s expensive for our warung tastes — so we asked Indonesians living in NYC where they go to satiate their cravings for rendang and bakso without breaking the bank. Here are their (and our) top picks.
Bali Kitchen (East Village)
Bali Kitchen is a cozy and casual eatery serving up modernized Indo fare including Balinese specialities and vegan options (the only restaurant we reviewed that does so). Located in NYC’s très chic East Village hood, this food-spot is well placed to vie for the attention of American diners eager to try new cuisines.
Originally from Surabaya, in the Eastern island of Java, Bali Kitchen’s owner, Jazz Pasay, used to live Bali, hence the restaurant’s name. Having worked as a designer before going into the F&B industry, he uses his strong aesthetic sense in the composition of his dishes.
“Americans like different textures in one dish. So my dishes always have something crunchy, something soft, something chewy,” he says.
“They also like different colours in their food. Indonesian food often is just brown in color. I like to put a bit of yellow, red, white, green all mixed together.”
Not only are the dishes gorgeous, but they taste amazing. And it’s awesome they are reppin’ Indonesian food in Manhattan which so far has so few options. (We also loved their their daring addition of durian juice and pudding to the menu!)
Recommended dish: Nasi Campur Bali
Bali Kitchen’s house special is packed full of Balinese delicacies like sate lilit (minced meat on a bamboo stick), grilled chicken in betutu spice mix, sambal matah (lemongrass and shallot sauce), and accompanied by lawar (grated coconut and veggies), urab sayur (green beans with coconut), a boiled egg, kerupuk (crackers), peanuts and white rice.
Recommended dish: Gado Gado
The generous portion is bursting with textures and flavours. It’s made with tofu, tempeh (soybean cake), boiled egg, jackfruit, lontong (rice cakes), lettuce, tomato, potato, corn, carrots and kerupuk and is served with a light peanut dressing. Soft, crunchy, tangy, salty and sweet all in one, this is a healthy and refreshing banquet for your tastebuds.
Recommended dish: Mushroom Rendang
The complex rendang spice mixture complements the bounce and juiciness of the mushrooms, and pairs heavenly with the jalapeño side. Finally all you vegans and vegetarians out there can enjoy Indonesia’s culinary pride and joy: rendang!
Recommended dish: Ayam Betutu
This is a yummy Balinese dish made with chicken that is lovingly massaged with betutu sauce (you can think of betutu as a kind of G8 of the spice world featuring turmeric, chili, ginger, galangal, sambal and candle nuts, shallots, garlic). Totally delish.
Recommended desserts: Jackfruit and Durian Puddings
The yummy puddings made with jackfruit (left) and durian (right) are creamy, not too sweet, and filled with fruity bits. Perfection in a cup.
Atmosphere: Bali Kitchen is casual and simple, yet tastefully decorated with little wooden details here and there. The main dishes are pictured on the wall to help people choose what they want, which is helpful for those who aren’t familiar with Indonesian food.
It has a somewhat communal vibe with people coming from far and wide to get their fix of Indonesian food. (During the hour we were there, two Indonesian students studying in New York, a Dutch tourist who had been missing Indonesian food, and an Indonesian woman and her American partner came to satiate their cravings.)
Sky Café (Elmhurst)
Lily Tjia hails from Medan, a city in the Northeast of Sumatra, Indonesia. There, she ran a successful catering business, and after emigrating to the US in 2002, opening a restaurant was a natural choice. In fact, this is her second Indonesian restaurant – the first one is in Philadelphia, also called Sky Café and run by her daughter Beth.
Emerging from the kitchen where she has been cooking up a storm since 7 am, she greets us with a big smile. Switching seamlessly between Hokkien, a dialect of Chinese, and Bahasa Indonesia, Lily treats every customer with a warm and maternal demeanor. It’s clear that food and people are two of her passions. “What I love most about having a restaurant,” she says, “is meeting people, old friends, new friends, friends from all countries.”
This is a great place to try Medan cooking, which tends to be spicier than food from other parts of the archipelago. Take note that they are not a halal restaurant, but they don’t serve pork.
Recommended dish: Nasi Bungkus
Nasi bungkus is basically a rice dish wrapped in a banana leaf. Served in the shape of a pyramid, this totally unpretentious dish is a perfect combination of rice and gravy, melt-in-the-mouth potato and jackfruit, bouncy egg and appropriately flaky beef rendang. We think it’s the most satisfying nasi bungkus in town, which means this may be the best in North America. Not to exaggerate or anything.
Recommended dish: Mie Komplit
The dish is made with perfectly al dente homemade egg noodles topped with minced chicken and mushrooms, leafy greens, a soy sauce egg and fried wantons. It comes served with a clear chicken broth with a single meatball. We were smitten from the first bite to the last. You complete me, Mie Komplit!
Recommended dish: Lontong Sayur
A specialty here, it is a soupy treat made with steamed rice cakes, beef rendang and veggies floating in a spicy yellow veggie curry topped with prawn crackers and a spicy egg, crispy fried anchovies and sambal tauco (chili sauce with fermented soy bean). Total comfort food!
Recommended dish: Nasi Ayam Goreng Cabe Ijo
The fried chicken (breast or thigh) is topped with green chili sambal fabulousness words cannot even describe. KFC, eat your heart out — you will never be this tasty.
Recommended dessert: Es Teler
Literally “Drunk Ice,” this dessert drink is devoid of alcohol but will make you drunk on life (haha). It is a game of hide and seek in a cup. Floating in its depths of shredded ice and pandan-infused coconut milk are tantalizing bits of jelly, jackfruit, avocado and nata de coco which you can hunt for with spoon or straw.
Atmosphere: Sky Café has a laid back, family feel. Chef Lily often comes out to meet customers and has obviously become good friends with the regulars. The food is served quickly and we loved that they serve hot tea with the meal.
Upi Jaya (Elmhurst)
This is the go-to place for Padang (also know as Minang) food. Padang cuisine comes from West Sumatra and is famous for its balado (crushed chili paste) served with thick coconut milk based curries and steamed rice. Upi Yuliastuti who is of Minangkabau origin, opened the restaurant together with her late husband in 2004.
Before that, Ibu Upi offered a 5$ weekend-only buffet out of her family home, which then grew into a delivery service. She ran the business singlehandedly, taking orders, cooking and delivering food all by herself (this is years before Uber Eats and Seamless, folks!). At the time, there were no Indonesian restaurants around, yet there seemed to be a huge demand for home-cooked Indonesian food, so she took the plunge and opened the restaurant. Until today, it is the most long-standing Indonesian restaurant in the Queens borough of NYC.
Recommended dishes: Beef Rendang & Ayam Panggang
Beef rendang is a kind of brisket braised in coconut curry, fresh chili, ginger purée, lemongrass, galangal among many other spices. Chef Upi takes her rendang sangat (very) seriously – it takes her no less than eight hours of boiling to get her beef rendang cooked to Padang perfection. This is the mother of all rendang (at least in NYC) and no other can compete with it!
Another crowd pleaser is Upi Jaya’s ayam panggang, grilled chicken that has been marinated in a mouth-watering spice mixture of ginger, garlic and shallots. Enak sekali!
Recommended dish: Dendeng Balado
This dish of thinly-sliced beef jerky smothered in balado hits the spot. In fact it hits all the spots you’ve ever dreamed of. The accompanying kale cooked in coconut milk tastes exactly like the usual cassava leaves used in Padang food.
Recommended dish: Jengkol Balado
Southeast Asians are truly at the forefront of celebrating yummy-stinky foods. The dish is made with the little known (to Western stomachs/noses) Dogfruit nut, a contender for the stink-a-licious first prize (together with Petai AKA stinky bean). Here, it’s cooked with crushed chili and served with a topping of crunchy fried shallots.
Recommended dish: Nasi Rames
These awesome lunch sets are served until 4 p.m. They include a scoop of white rice accompanied by small meat and veggie portions. Those with American-sized appetites may want to order extra sides!
Atmosphere: It’s one of the roomier restaurants and the big round tables are perfect for families or larger groups. We enjoyed lunchtime on a weekday because it’s quiet and they have nasi rames.
We loved the batik map of Indonesia hanging on the wall and the maquette of a gorgeous traditional Minang house that sits on the counter. Oh and being serenaded by Indo-rock band Dewa 19 which was playing when we were there!
FIND IT: Upi Jaya is at 76-04 Woodside Ave, Elmhurst, New York | Instagram
Warung Selasa (Elmhurst)
Warung Selasa (literally “Tuesday Stall”) is a pop-up restaurant located inside the Indo Java Indonesian grocery store in Elmhurst. Opened in 2007 by Dewi Tjahjadi, Elvi Goliat and Ira Janti, all hailing from Java, Indonesia, the grocery store has become one of the pillars of the Indonesian community in NYC.
Dewi left Indonesia in 1998 at a time when the race riots targeting Indonesians of Chinese descent hit too close to home for her. She received asylum in the USA and, soon after, opened her first restaurant Java Village (now closed) and the Indo Java grocery store.
The pop-up was initially only a Tuesday thing, but because it’s so popular, they now also serve food on Thursdays and Sundays. They do not have a fixed menu and Dewi (who cooks on Tuesdays) says the chefs all play it by ear, getting inspiration from what they find at the market and what’s in season.
The spirit of the pop-up gives her the freedom she loves: “I prefer not having a full-time restaurant, that way it’s not stressful and I am not in kitchen jail!” she laughs.
Recommended dish: You get the dish of the day or a choice of two dishes. Call ahead to find out what’s cooking.
When we first went, Dewi had cooked Gulai Ikan, a dish made up of fish stewed in coconut milk with spices and chili, and served with rice, clams in sautéed jalapeño, spicy potatoes, kale and boiled egg halves topped with sambal. It was so good we ordered more for take-away.
The next time we returned, two famous Indonesian dishes — Lontong Sayur (rice cakes and veggies served with grilled chicken) and Soto Betawi (beef soup) — were on the menu. Both were ridiculously good. The beef was tender and the broth was one of the most flavorful ones we’d had in the city!
Atmosphere: Eating between the aisles of a grocery store is a uniquely charming and makeshift experience.
Each time we go, we end up meeting new people and chatting with the owners, the chef on duty that day, even the other customers. Everyone has been so friendly and welcoming and friendly. You’re made to feel like you’re a special guest eating in their home. This human connection is definitely the appeal of the place.
It’s also pretty neat as a one stop-shop: you grab a bite then load up with Teh Botol and IndoMie on your way out.
FIND IT: Warung Selasa is at 8512 Queens Blvd #1, Elmhurst, New York | Instagram
Awang Kitchen (Elmhurst)
Opened in 2017 by Siliwanga, also known as Awang, this restaurant serves both Japanese sushi (Siliwanga spent years cooking for Japanese restaurants) as well as Indonesian food.
Siliwanga moved from Jakarta to the US in 2000 and worked in catering before he decided to open his own restaurant. He says he does not change the recipe to suit the American palate and tries to keep his food as authentic as possible Indonesian.
He even wishes he could introduce his fav dish Sate Kobra (snake meat on a skewer), a lesser-known Jakarta street food. But something tells us that wouldn’t wriggle past the US food regulators!
Recommended dish: Ayam Goreng Kremes
Their crispy fried chicken is one of their most popular dishes. It’s one of the best fried chicken we’ve had in the city. It is served with a bowl of soupy sayur kuning (literally yellow veggies), fried boiled egg and sambal. Drool-worthy.
Recommended dish: Pempek Palembang
This dish is strangely addictive. It’s pieces of fishcake fused around whole eggs and served on a bed of yellow noodles and crisp cucumber cubes immersed in spicy sweet and sour sauce. We swear we were craving this for weeks on end after eating it.
Recommended dish: Iga Bakar
These are finger-licking good grilled ribs that were tender, juicy and spicy. Eaten with sambal, these stand out from the typical American sweet BBQ ribs. The iga (ribs) and the broth combined was like a match made in tastebud heaven.
Recommended dish: Cumi Goreng Sos Telur Asin
Fried calamari are a dime a dozen in NYC. But this one crushes the competition. So you know how there’s weightlifting and then there’s weightlifting on steroids. The proverbial steroids here take the form of the salted duck egg yolk sauce in which the calamari is cooked. Bam! Take that, all you basic squid!
Recommended dish: Soto Ayam Lamongan
This Lamongan-style Chicken Soup is healthier than many other Indonesian soups because it has no coconut milk. It is topped with shrimp crackers and fried garlic, peanuts, chili and a dash of kaffir lime juice. Yum-city!
Atmosphere: Right off the bustling Queens Boulevard, the restaurant is a refuge from the noise and traffic. The décor is simple and clean-cut, except for the crowded boards displaying pics of more or less famous people who’ve eaten there. There are lots of tables. The waiters were all very friendly and eager to help and offer suggestions. Besides the menu, check the board for daily specials.
FIND IT: Awang Kitchen is at 8405 Queens Blvd #1C, Elmhurst, New York | Instagram
Asian Taste 86 (Elmhurst)
Off the main avenue and a few stores down from Sky Café, is this cozy halal food spot that serves mainly Indonesian food, along with a few Japanese-inspired dishes.
Asian Taste 86 was opened in 2004 by Johnny Prasodjo who is from Surabaya, in East Java, and Chandra Lie, from Malang, also in East Java. They both worked in many different restaurants before accumulating enough resources to start their own business.
“I started from zero. I put all my savings into the restaurant,” Johnny says. “It’s been very long journey. We thank our blessings and pray to let God help us do it.” His hard work has definitely paid off and Asian Taste 86 is on the map of Indonesian food-lovers in NYC.
“The best part of having a restaurant is seeing that our food has been accepted by the community. We have a lot of regular customers and new ones from other communities who come to taste Indonesian food.”
Recommended dish: Nasi Goreng Sambal Terasi
We’d heard so much about their nasi goreng, so this was on top of our must-try list. One bite and we understood why. For starters, it’s a mix of rice and some noodles which is original, it has the perfect level of spicy (you can choose the spiciness), and the flavor of the sambal terasi (shrimp paste chili sauce) was to die for. Atop the rice sit thin slices of chicken, fried egg and crispy garlic, and nestled beside the rice are prawn crackers and some cucumbers. You can also get this with lamb (kambing) instead of chicken and it’s equally delish. In fact, our Jakarta-born friend Alex Napitupulu gushed that “their nasi goreng kambing is the closest to Jakarta street food I can find here.”
Recommended dish: Ayam Penyet
Also known as “smashed chicken”, the dish is served with tahu goreng (fried tofu), white rice, sambal, and a tasty bowl of sayur asem (a sourish tamarind veggie soup). The chicken is perfectly crispy on the outside and moist in the inside and the veggie soup adds a refreshing tanginess.
Recommended dish: Sate Ayam
We had Chicken Satay as our starter. It was a simple dish, but just as it’s meant to be – juicy tender meat covered in rich peanut sauce that is not too overpowering.
Atmosphere: This is a small unassuming place, with limited seating, which makes it very cozy. The wait staff was friendly and helpful, and the food came out quickly. It’s literally three doors down from Sky Café.
FIND IT: Asian Taste 86 is at 86-10 Whitney Ave, Queens, New York | Instagram
Java Rijsttafel Indonesian Restaurant (Brooklyn)
Indonesian food is rare to non-existent in Brooklyn. The only notable restaurant is Java Rijsttaffel near Park Slope. Opened by Ibu Rofiah Agoes in 1992, it serves the mainly “bule” (non-Indonesian) community in Brooklyn, though it’s also popular among many Dutch tourists and some Indonesians who live nearby.
Rofiah is from Cirebon, an island off the West of Java. She came to the USA in 1982 with her husband who is from Padang, Sumatra. Her restaurant is the only one in NYC that serves ritjsttafel. Literally “rice table” in Dutch, ritjsttafel is a colonial creation which is one big tasting menu made up of a wide array of small Indonesian dishes accompanied by rice.
This set up was aimed at showcasing the exotic diversity of cuisines from their Southeast Asian colony. Although it’s not a thing in Indonesia, ritjsttafel is occasionally served in Indonesian restaurants abroad. Chatting to us in Bahasa, Rofiah who is now 66, says that she is not sure whether she will retire in Indonesia or stay in the US. Her only son and 3 grandkids are US citizens and want her to stay, but she says she misses her island. Her relatives have visited her but none want to move to NYC.
“Here you must work hard,” she says, “over there, you don’t have to make a lot of money to live well.” She says her customers are 80% American and Dutch and 20% Indonesian and that she has had to adapt her cooking to the American palate – making all meats boneless and making sure it’s not too spicy.
Recommended dish: 13 Dish Sharing Menu
For $49, you get to sample lots of amazing dishes from across the archipelago, and it’s more than enough food for two people.
The meal begins with a bowl of soto ayam (peppery chicken broth with bean sprouts and hard boiled egg and some vermicelli), followed by deep-fried bakwan (corn fritters), achar (pickled veggies) and gado gado.
The next 6 dishes are served on a heated surface, and include beef rendang, chicken and beef sate, sayur tumis (stir-fried veggies), ikan bumbu Bali (battered fish), kare ayam (chicken curry), kambing goreng (fried lamb), sambal goreng udang (prawns fried in spicy batter), all served with rice.
The rijsttafel ends with jasmine tea and a bright green coconut pudding. In case that’s not enough for you, go for the even more sumptuous 17-dish sharing menu for $59.
Atmosphere: The restaurant is on a quiet street corner and exudes relaxing and quaint vibes. The dim lighting casts a warm glow on the dark wood furniture and hand-carved marks adorning the walls. Through the large glass windows, you watch the world go by, as soft gamelan music plays in the background, encouraging your digestion.
Price: $$ + ½$
OK Indo Food Store (Elmhurst)
OK, fine — this is not a restaurant, but…we really want to tell you about this cute little Indonesian grocery store, tucked away on a quiet street in Elmhurst, because of its positive vibrasi. Helmed by Tan Sian Bie, also known as Santi (picture on the right), OK Indo Food Store is a tiny hole-in-the-wall store off the beaten track, literally packed to the ceiling with Indonesian products. The place is also a kind of social spot for Indonesians. When we visited, there was a group of women seated in a corner catching up over some coffee. Santi was super nice and even gave us a huge piece of martabak (peanut pancake) to munch on as we chatted. So next time you come to Elmhurst to chow down on some Indonesian food, check out this hidden gem of a mini-mart!
That’s it, folks! Hungry for Indonesian food yet? (We hope so.)
More Coconuts Food Guides…
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