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Gotham has never harbored more than three or four Indonesian restaurants at any given time, making it one of our rarest cuisines. While most have been Javanese, a year ago Upi Jaya opened on a forlorn stretch of Woodside Avenue, slinging the cuisine of Padang—Sumatra’s third-largest city. Now, in an embarrassment of riches, two smaller and cheaper cafés have opened on a single block of Whitney Avenue. My posse and I peered into the steamed-up windows of both on a recent frigid afternoon and chose Minangasli. The name refers to a matrilineal tribe indigenous to western Sumatra, a jungle wonderland of waterfalls, water buffalo, and rare orchids. The menu proudly trumpets the name of its matronly chef, Nani Tanzil, who is likely to grin at you over the high counter as you enter, while several cooks preside over woks behind her in the open kitchen.
Though not made with water buffalo, beef rendang ($6.95) has never tasted so good—in New York, at least. This Padang signature begins life as chunks of meat floundering in an ocean of coconut milk, eventually cooking down to dark, fibrous sludge. Need I say that the spice-laden sludge is indescribably delicious? Rendang’s almost rhyming cousin, dendeng, transforms the same meat into a sauceless species of driftwood. For more succulence, initiate your meal with tahu isi ($4.95), a triangle of bean curd stuffed with mung sprouts, shredded carrots, and dark ribbons of caramelized onion. After being battered and fried, it’s lapped with a thin peanut sauce dotted with bits of vegetable matter. “That looks like puke,” one of my co-diners exclaimed, then lit up after she’d tasted a forkful.
The wheat allergic among us will be glad to hear you won’t find very much of it at Minangasli. A meal is typically anchored in a plate of sculpted coconut rice ($1.25), onto which are spooned any number of concentrated dishes of fish, vegetables, poultry, beef, and lamb. It’s best to choose these satellites for maximum contrast. You might, for example, pick lontong sayur ($4.95), a jackfruit stew that arrives crowned with krupuk, pastel crackers that give the orange conglomeration a fishy kick in the pants. By the way, jackfruit is a bumpy football of a green melon. At first it looks like potato but, miraculously, develops the texture and appearance of canned tuna as it cooks. Vegetarians take note. A good contrast to the stew would be teri petai cabe lgo. Though it looks like a string of nonsense syllables used to teach typing, this toss of salty dried anchovies and green chiles also features peteh—a firm, flat, green pulse that the menu refers to rather disparagingly as “stinking bean.” It smelled fine to me. If you really want stinky, don’t miss the durian shake. Also, don’t miss opor ayam, a chicken stew thickened and flavored with crushed candlenut, a fatty nut something like a Hawaiian macadamia. The yellow gravy will remind you of Midwestern chicken and dumplings.
Of course, there are satays. But the Sumatran satay turns these meat sticks (choose lamb, beef, or chicken) into a full meal. The brochettes arrive flung like pickup sticks across marvelous cubes of compressed rice starch called lontong, flooded with a sweet dark sauce and garnished with red chiles and fried shallots. A dish of more savor and delicacy can hardly be imagined.