By Tara Mahadevan
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By Laura Shunk
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It hasn't been as angry as Iceland's volcano lately, but Indonesia's Mount Bromo is impressive nonetheless. Its peak blown off long ago, it rises up from vast dunes of black volcanic sand in East Java, burping smoke and attracting adventurous hikers. Here, on the other side of the world, a small restaurant called Bromo Satay House has erupted in Elmhurst.
The place joins the impressive ranks of Indonesian eateries in the Queens neighborhood, which includes two Sumatrans and a handful of Javanese spots. Bromo styles itself as more of a full-service, gussied-up restaurant than the others. It serves Javanese standards, but leans toward the specialties of East Java—where the owners are from—with daging krengsengan, stewed beef in shrimp paste, and an elaborate version of gado-gado in the style of Surabaya, the capital of the region.
The room is often full of groups, mainly young men who seem to know each other and the staff. They invariably order several plates of satay—one of the restaurant's focuses—and great glasses of sweet, iced coconut milk with grass jelly, syrup, and fruit. Brightly hued artworks depicting scenes from Hindu mythology line the walls, along with traditional hand puppets, batik textiles, and the owners' wedding photos.
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The menu offers chicken, seafood, beef, noodles, vegetables, rice, and appetizer sections, all plates generous enough to share and none over $10. It's a lengthy list, and some offerings are much better than others. Generally, the meat and fish are delicious, while anything in a broth is not.
East Java is very close to the island of Bali, which has its own cuisine and is the only Hindu-majority part of Indonesia. One of Bromo's best dishes hails from there, a beef dish called daging bumbu Bali. Slices of beef as spoon-tender and appealing as your grandmother's pot roast are stewed in an incendiary, lemon-grass-heavy spice sludge, which clings to the meat and soaks into every nook and cranny. You could feast on beef at Bromo if you wanted to: An order of East Javanese daging krengsengan involves that same luscious flesh, this time cooked in a dryish mixture that includes trassi, the Indonesian fermented shrimp paste. Its layers of umami go on forever.
One night, the well-meaning server began pushing the ikan lalapan, grilled whole fish, as soon as we arrived, though explaining it would take a while to cook. We finally buckled and ordered this special, which was tilapia that night—thinking a whole fish for $10 qualifies as a good deal no matter what. In the end, we were glad for it. Seasoned with not much more than salt, the fish had been grilled until the white flesh was steamy and moist and the skin crunchy. It's probably the best possible fate for tilapia, which is often insipid at best. This one—dipped into a bit of the trassi-spiked sambal (hot sauce) that came on the side—tasted cleanly, mildly oceanic.
Of the remaining seafood options, sambal udang impresses—a heap of shrimp in a crimson sauté of ground chilies. Spooned on top of rice, it's a zippy dinner. (We wished, though, that the crustaceans had been cooked in their flavorful shells.) Skip the squid with jalapeños, which found no takers at our table, the baby creatures soaking haplessly in a shallow pool of pinkish cephalopod juice.
Because trassi works its way into almost everything, it's hard to find purely vegetarian dishes here. But other worthy vegetable-based choices include tahu tek, an East Javanese specialty that's a salad for a body builder—fried tofu, bean sprouts, rice cakes, shrimp crackers, and egg drenched in a thick, rather unappetizing-looking (but delicious-tasting) dressing of ground peanuts and trassi. That gado-gado involves a lot of cabbage plus more fried tofu, bean sprouts, and egg in a sweeter, milder peanut sauce.
If you're not Indonesian, you may need to stress (in a cheerful way) that, yes, you really do like spicy food, and not only that, but, yes, you like trassi. This may blow your server's mind, but you'll have a better chance of getting traditionally prepared dishes. (Actually, few are fiery, but many carry some heat.) If that doesn't work, just order a side of sambal—the simplest version comes for free. The more pungent trassi sambal costs $1.50, but the flavor punch is worth it. Sambal tempe penyet, a more elaborate offering, arrives in a beautiful wooden vessel. Slices of the dried fermented soybean cake tempe marinate in a thick, rough potage of chilies, tomatoes, and scallions. Eaten with a bit of rice, it works as a palate alarm-clock.
It's impossible to resist the restaurant's namesake satay, if only because food on a stick is so universally appealing. At Bromo, it comes in chicken, beef, lamb, or shrimp versions, all generously drenched with a sweetish, thick peanut sauce and dressed with raw sliced chilies and shallots to cut the richness. Although the skewers are not cooked over a charcoal fire, as would be most traditional, they manage to acquire an appetizing, caramelized sear from the gas grill. They're all good, especially the musky lamb, but somehow I enjoyed the tender, char-edged chicken the most.
On such a wide-ranging menu, it's inevitable that some dishes will disappoint. All the soups we tried had thin, salty broths that tasted like they were made from bouillon cubes. The nasi campur—rice with portions of several dishes on the side—is undistinguished, as are most of the noodles. But go for the stewed beef, the satays, the salads, and grilled fish, and raise your glass of condensed milk and grass jelly to Mount Bromo, puffing smoke so far away.