Ayam What Ayam
Don't you just hate those cutesy, punning restaurant review headlines?
All right, ayam is Indonesian for chicken, and this piece is about Indonesian food.
I love Indonesian food, but until recently there weren't any especially good Indonesian restaurants in New York. The one in Brooklyn is horrendous, and the three in Manhattan are nothing to write home about, though Bali Nusa Indah, on Ninth Avenue, will do in a pinch.
In the last several years a number of Indonesian restaurants, both Sumatran and Javanese, have opened in Queens, the borough that could stand on its own as the most diverse ethnic restaurant city on the east coast. I rarely get to Queens, despite its many temptations. Living in Brooklyn, working in Manhattan, and not owning a car, I kept making excuses not to make the trek. In recent months I've remedied that in a systematic fashion. I contacted a group of friends and we agreed to a monthly Queens dinner outing.
The first three have been to Asian restaurants: Sripraphai, the most raved-about Thai restaurant in the city; Spicy and Tasty, the Sichuan restaurant in Flushing that was recently awarded two stars by the Times' Frank Bruni; and Minangasli, a tiny Indonesian place in Elmhurst. I haven't written about the first two. Sripraphai was excellent, but I didn't have anything to say that hasn't been said already. Spicy and Tasty was quite good too, but I feel I need a wider sample of dishes before I commit. I will tell you about Minangasli.
It's a tiny place in a neighborhood bustling with Asian restaurants, and the cuisine is Sumatran. Sumatran food is one of the most popular cuisines in the vast nation of Indonesia. I've never been to Sumatra, but you'll find Nasi Padang restaurants all over Bali and Java. Padang, Sumatra's largest city, is famous for its incendiary cuisine. Nasi means rice in the Indonesian language (Bahasa Indonesia), and Nasi Padang restaurants are usually humble places that will serve you a plate of rice with your choice of a number of prepared dishes. Nasi Padang was, I believe, the inspiration for the more formal, genteel Dutch-Indonesian Rijsttafel.
Minangasli serves a la carte, but the food is Padang-style. Six of us dined there, so we had the chance to sample a bunch of dishes. A number of them were indeed spicy, but somewhat less hot than those prepared by Nasi Padang places in Indonesia. It's pretty hard to find Southeast Asian cuisine in the U.S. that maintains the spice level of the home country, even in "ethnic" neighborhoods.
The most popular dish with my group was the ayam balado, shown above. It's fried chicken with a fresh red chili sauce. I don't know how, or if, balado differs from sambal, as the sauce is known in other Indonesian and Malaysian restaurants. The chicken itself was incredibly moist, plump and flavorful, and the sauce had a flavor complexity that gave it dimensions other than heat.
A favorite Indonesian dish of mine, which we ordered as an appetizer, is martabak, sometimes spelled murtabak. It's a thin pancake stuffed with a mixture of chopped meat, egg, green onions and cilantro. Mianangasli makes theirs with beef, but I believe some I've had in Java were made with lamb. The martabak was tasty, but I prefer one that is more meaty than eggy. A better version can be found at Philadelphia's Indonesia Restaurant.
Our lamb satay was pretty good, but the skewers were already swimming in a spicy peanut sauce when they arrived. I prefer satay with sauce on the side. The beef rendang was a standout. This dry curry dish is a cornerstone of both Indonesian and Malaysian cuisine. I was a big fan of the jackfruit stew in a coconut milk sauce, but it met with mixed reviews from my friends. The one real dud was a steamed snapper that came out rather soggy and was served with an unexceptional sauce on the side. We also had an udang (shrimp) balado that didn't commune with the sauce as well as the chicken did, and ayam gulai, chicken in a coconut milk sauce that, while good, was not up to the standard of the best items.
There's no question that Minangasli is far superior to any of the Indonesian restaurants in Manhattan. Now I have to try some of the other Queens Indonesian places to see where it stands in the majors.
Minangasli is at 86-10 Whitney Avenue, Elmhurst.