Ecky Prabanto drizzled some broth on her bakmie ayam, an Indonesian egg-noodle and chicken dish. Here at Rice Bowl II restaurant, the noodles are served with a bowl of soup and meatballs on the side. Ecky squirted the moistened noodles with Sriracha hot sauce and the thick sweet Indonesian sauce called kecap. (This is the stuff that inspired the English imitation called ketchup.) I followed Ecky's lead. When we were done doctoring the bakmie ayam, it tasted like spicy egg-noodle soup on a plate.
Bakmie ayam is one of the most common dishes in Indonesia. If you have ever eaten Japanese ramen or Vietnamese mi, you will understand the beauty of the concept. The problem with egg noodles is that they are dry by themselves, but they get soggy sitting in hot broth. That's why many Vietnamese mi lovers order the soup divided, with broth in one bowl and noodles in the other. Bakmie ayam is the same idea, but with a big bowl of egg noodles and a little bowl of soup for lubrication.
"I love something crunchy with my bakmie ayam," Ecky said, grabbing one of the big chicken-fried wontons we had ordered. The wontons aren't on the menu — a piece of paper posted on the wall offered five chicken-stuffed deep-fried wontons for two dollars. We used our wontons like scoops to gather up the spicy noodles. The crunchy contrast reminded me of the chopped-up egg roll you often get in a bowl of Vietnamese vermicelli.
The funny thing is, the first time I visited Rice Bowl, I got an order of bakmie ayam to go. After I ate the curly egg noodles and chicken at home, I found the little container of soup and rubbery meatballs. I forgot that I was supposed to moisten the noodles with the soup. Without the soup and the spicy hot sauce and kecap, with no fried wontons for crunch, the dish was boring.
As I watched Ecky enthusiastically doctoring her noodles, I imagined an Asian who had never heard of Tex-Mex trying to eat a basket of tortilla chips without salsa, queso or guacamole. They would have to wonder what the attraction was.
That's the problem with Indonesian food. With the exception of a few familiar items like the meat-on-a-stick with peanut sauce called satay (spelled sate here), this cuisine is far removed from our standard frame of reference. The Dutch, who colonized Indonesia, dealt with the bewildering complexity of Indonesian cuisine by setting out lots of little dishes with rice and condiments. This smorgasbord is called rijsttafel, or "rice table." Rijsttafel restaurants offering Westernized Indonesian food became popular in Holland and spread to the United States. This is the way I first ate Indonesian food.
There is an Indonesian restaurant at 1910 Dairy Ashford that was called Mata Hari's when I first reviewed it, and Yanti's the second time I reviewed it. It is now known as Hazzard's Bar & Grill. The real draw here has always been an exotic wood-paneled bar where Americans who once worked in Indonesia gather to drink, swap stories and eat puffy fried shrimp chips dipped in sambal. In all three incarnations, this fine-dining restaurant has offered a rijsttafel.
Indonesian street food restaurants have only started appearing in Houston recently. They are much more casual operations than rijsttafel restaurants, which tend to have an air of colonial formality. Last year, I took Saveur editor and Indonesian cookbook author James Oseland to Noodle House 88, where I fell in love with the spicy street food he introduced me to. [see "Great Gado Gado," March 18, 2008]. Unfortunately, Noodle House 88 went out of business. When I met Ecky Prabanto, I asked her where she ate Indonesian food. She offered to take me to Rice Bowl, or Rice Bowl II, as it is actually called.
Rice Bowl II, a Chinese restaurant on Bellaire near Highway 6, is owned by a Chinese-Indonesian man who used to own a restaurant in Bogor, outside of Jakarta. (I'm guessing that restaurant was the first Rice Bowl.) Rice Bowl II's regular menu offers sweet-and-sour chicken, moo goo gai pan, General Joe's chicken, and orange beef. But the waitress will bring you an Indonesian menu if you ask. Ecky, co-owner of Tuscany Coffee in Greenway Plaza, comes from the town of Bogor as well. And she loves Rice Bowl's version of her hometown food.
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On my first visit, I met Ecky and her partner David Buehrer for dinner. David, who had eaten at Rice Bowl several times, ordered his favorite dish, beef rendang. The block of braised beef was served in a thick, brown coconut milk curry seasoned with cinnamon, cardamom, black pepper and a host of exotic spices. The falling-apart-tender meat and the thick, rich sauce was a heady combination. Thanks to the quality of American beef, the dish is even better in the U.S. than it is in Indonesia, according to Ecky. David suggested I get a second order to take home since there are never any leftovers for the doggy bag.
I tried fried chicken with butter sauce on that first visit. The chicken was tasty, but soggy — I wouldn't order it again. I also sampled gado gado, the combination of noodles and vegetables in sweet and spicy peanut sauce that I first fell in love with at Noodle House 88. Rice Bowl's version was denser than the salad-like gado gado at Noodle House 88, but it was interesting in its own right. I also tried chicken sate in peanut sauce, which I found lackluster. Empek empek, an appetizer of fish paste cut into squares and served with cucumber slices in a sweet soy dressing, was odd but pleasant.
On my second visit to Rice Bowl, Ecky recommended that we try fried chicken with curry sauce. I was expecting another dish of soggy chicken, but this one was spectacular. The chicken was crispy, and the curry was like a fried powder. I also tried a fabulous appetizer on that visit, an Indonesian egg dish called telor balado. Three hard-boiled eggs are deep-fried until a crispy skin forms on the outside. Then they are cut in half and each half is slathered with the fiery hot sauce called sambal. These hellishly hot deviled eggs will be making an appearance at my next tailgate party. After eating a couple, I wanted a cold beer. Rice Bowl doesn't serve any, but the waitress assured me it was okay to bring your own.
So here's my recommendation. Go to Rice Bowl and order the spicy eggs and maybe some gado gado. Get the chicken and noodles and don't forget to doctor them up. Order the fried wontons to eat with the noodles. Spicy stir-fried water spinach is the vegetable to go with. Don't miss the fried chicken in curry sauce, and be sure to order the sensational beef rendang. (If you take David's advice, you'll get a second order of beef rendang to take home.) And don't forget to bring some beer.