Saturday, May 03, 2008

Which Padang Place Shall We Dine at Tonight, Dear?

The hot-spicy cuisine of Padang, the largest city on the island of Sumatra, is popular all over Indonesia. I haven't been to Sumatra, but I've eaten nasi Padang several times in Java. Nasi means rice, and nasi Padang refers to a serving style. At a nasi Padang restaurant, usually a humble little place, a plate of rice is served with small portions of a variety of dishes. This is most likely the ur-version of the Dutch-Indonesian rijsttafel.

There are two Padang-style places I know of in New York, both in Elmhurst, Queens. For a city that has been Indonesian-food-challenged until recent years, this is a modest embarrassment of riches. I've already written about Minangasli, and I recently dined at Upi Jaya.

Both restaurants are good, but there are significant enough differences that set them apart. First of all, Upi Jaya is the much more comfortable of the two. While Minangasli is basically a take-out place with a few tables, Upi Jaya is more a full-scale restaurant. There is much overlap on the menus, but Minangasli may have a little more variety overall, and Upi Jaya appears to have more to offer the vegetarian. Upi Jaya's menu is heavily weighted toward two categories of main course-thick, spicy, coconut-milk-based curries (gulai or sayur) and dishes smothered in ground red chili (balado).

We started our Upi Jaya meal with two appetizers, perkedel kentang (potato fritters), and lemper ayam (steamed glutinous rice stuffed with shredded chicken). I liked both well enough but was not bowled over by either. I was curious as to whether the name perkedel comes "frikadel," or Dutch meatballs. An online search revealed that perkedel kentang are literally "frikadel potatoes," and though the Upi Jaya version is vegetarian they often contain meat.

At Upi Jaya we tried several of the same dishes we had at Minangasli. The ayam goreng balado (fried chicken with chili), which was the runaway hit at Minangasli, was rather disappointing at Upi Jaya, while Upi Jaya's jackfruit curry was somewhat more flavorful and spicy than Minangasli's. Daging rendang, beef with dry curry, is a staple of Padang cuisine. While I think Minangasli does this one better, I actually prefer the Malaysian spin on rendang, which has a very thick curry sauce rather than a dry spice coating.

Sayur Nangka (jackfruit curry)

Gulai cincang was described as curried beef spare ribs, but the meat was served boneless. I think this was more successful than the rendang. I convinced my dining companions that we shouldn't order anything with petai, which Upi Jaya describes as "green Indonesian nut," but is more accurately described on Minangasli's menu as "stinking bean" and tastes like I imagine formaldehyde would. So when we ordered udang goreng balado petai (shrimp sautéed with chili and petai), we said "hold the petai." While the chili topping was quite good, the small shrimps were overcooked and short on flavor.

I'd have to give the edge to Minangasli in the food department, but Upi Jaya is pretty good overall and considerably more comfortable. I'm planning to give it a strictly vegetarian test-run this summer, when some vegetarian friends come to New York for a visit.

Upi Jaya
76-04 Elmhurst Avenue
Elmhurst (Queens), NY
E-F-G-R-V-7 trains to 74th St./Broadway/Roosevelt

Upi Jaya on Urbanspoon


Anonymous Anonymous said...

hi peter,
love your pieces (and many thanks for your "food first" perspectives). if it's not too much trouble, could you include the phone numbers (and perhap the hours of business) for the restaurants you visit? many thanks

8:09 PM  
Anonymous Anado said...

Hi Peter,
I knew you years ago in NYC. My name is Anado knew me as Jim. I was a friend of David W. and Dennis Deforge. I heard David passed on. Anyhow, just wanted to say hell'o from Mexico where I live.

8:53 AM  

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