Named after a ninth-century pyramid encircled by seven stone terraces featuring bas reliefs of Buddha’s life, Borobudur is a new restaurant on the ground floor of an East Village tenement. Despite the name, the food is Muslim halal, mainly from Java. Even if it were bad it would be worth trying, since Indonesian food remains rare in New York. The Formica-clad dining room is microscopic, and it’s clear from the menu—which also boasts American fast food like hamburgers and chicken fingers—that the café courts cabbies, beckoning, “You can get off from taxi and get a food right away.”
Luckily, that food is excellent, especially at the cheaper end of the menu, outstripping that of the handful of other Indonesians in town, with the exception of Woodside’s even smaller Warteg Fortuna (51-24 Roosevelt Avenue, Queens, 718-898-2554). Sweet-corn fritters that reflect the Dutch colonization of the 13,000-island archipelago, perkedel ($4) are laced with onions and garlic and offered with ketjap, an ebony sweet-and-salty dipping sauce. Most of the appetizers are similarly fried, including lumpia (crisp vegetable spring rolls), martabak (filo pies layered with ground meat and egg), and risoles (supple crepes filled with carrot, cabbage, and chicken). But the tastiest of all is empek empek ($6), a Sumatran curiosity assembling noodles, cucumbers, and egg-yolk-stuffed sago dumplings in a cold broth laced with vinegar and star anise. There’s a real thrill to the gooey texture of the dumplings, and no soup is more refreshing on a sweltering day.
Of course, the most famous Indonesian finger food is the satay. At Borobudur, the three variations (chicken, lamb, and beef) are offered exclusively as an entrée ($9), sided with white rice and a tart vegetable pickle. Eight in number, the satays are threaded with tiny, perfectly grilled morsels of meat, and line up like Ivy League racing shells on a lake of peanut sauce. The seafood entrées are generally good but unmemorable, including plates of shrimp and whole fish cooked in sweet-and-sour sauces. Instead, order the spectacular rendang padang ($9), a dish from the Sumatran city of Padang featuring hunks of beef that cavort in a dark sauce teeming with the kinds of sweet spices—cloves, coriander, cinnamon, and mace—that made Columbus search in vain for the Spice Islands. Miraculously, the flavor of the underlying coconut milk shines through the pungent sludge.
Glitzy entrées aside, the majority of the patrons select the economy-priced omnibus meals that Indonesian cooks are noted for. The most familiar is nasi goreng ($7.50), a miniature rijsttafel of fried rice, chicken satays, and a clean-tasting pickle of cucumber and carrot called acar. Another popular choice is bakso, Chinese soups of the sort that are adapted to local tastes throughout Southeast Asia. Mi pangsit ($5.50) is a tour de force of savory broth mobbed with egg noodles, fried wontons, and a delightful sauté of ground chicken and mushrooms.
Shoulder-to-shoulder squeeze bottles of ketjap and ketchup are your only condiments, unless you specially request sambals. Although these chunky homemade sauces are indispensable to Indonesian dining, the staff at Borobudur may not think you’re ready for their fishy, fiery, funky flavors. Skip the chicken fingers if you hope to convince them different.