We’ve spilled lots of ink in these pages about new Sumatran restaurants like Minang Asli and Upi Jaya that have changed our way of thinking about Indonesian food, endearing us to jackfruit curries, lontong rice cubes, and sludgy beef rendangs cooked in thick coconut milk. Now Java—the commercial hub of the 18,000 island Indonesian archipelago—strikes back. Just down the block from Minang Asli on Elmhurst’s exploding Whitney Avenue dining strip, Mie Jakarta (“Jakarta Noodles”) appeared in the space vacated by Padang Raya, a Sumatran establishment. Score one for Java! Painted several shades of pink and offering only a handful of tables, this small café emulates a warung—a hawker stall specializing in one or two dishes done to perfection. Like the name says, Mie Jakarta’s specialty is noodles.
“This is just blue-collar food,” the waiter said with some regret, shaking his black locks as he set down a plate of sio may ($6.50). While we had expected something that resembled the shrimp-stuffed dumplings of China and Japan, what we discovered provided a startling contrast: rice-noodle wads like birthday-package bows cloaked in a shoe-brown peanut sauce veined with ebony palm sugar, making an inspired color combination. The effect on us was instantaneous. “Bring us more blue-collar food,” we chortled fraternally.
Hopefully, you’ll approve of the peanut sauce, because you’re going to see it again and again. The rough-textured goo also lands on the collection of six grilled chicken satays ($6) and on gado-gado, a composed salad originated by the Betawi, as the indigenous inhabitants of the Jakarta area are called. Next to satays, gado-gado is probably Indonesia’s most famous dish, and it has been embraced throughout the island chain and in neighboring Malaysia. Mie Jakarta’s version is more rudimentary than the one found at New York’s Malaysian cafes, consisting mainly of shredded lettuce, bean sprouts, bean curd, a boiled egg, and decorative shrimp crackers—but what could be more perfect? The same sauce recurs on batagor, spongy kingfish cakes broken into pieces and tossed into a similar salad. Batagor features a boiled egg, too, the one item incorporated into almost anything at Mie Jakarta.
The most spectacular offering is ayam rica ($6.50), a quarter fried chicken paved with a coarse red coating that, upon closer inspection, turns out to be mainly pickled chiles. A certain amount of dexterity is required to pick up the bird and take a bite that includes the optimal proportion of skin, flesh, and hot peppers. A porgy treated the same way proves a bit disappointing—the diminutive fish is mainly skin and bones. On the other hand, it seems like just the kind of fish you’d encounter in an actual Jakarta hawker stall.
The heart of the menu, though, is a killer series of chicken noodle soups. The simplest (mie ayam Jakarta, $4) features small chicken tidbits in a tasty broth with an elusive trace of sweetness. A legacy of Dutch colonialism, the egg noodles are dead ringers for the Pennsylvania Dutch noodles you find in the supermarket. The most complex soup (mie ayam komplit, $5.50) supplements the noodles with wontons and “meatballs”—two fish balls and two beef balls that are so rubbery they seem like they would bounce if you dropped them. We tried and they bounced. Play ball!