Covered in sweet soy and peanut sauce and dotted with chopped peanuts and garlic bits, the luscious Indonesian version of chicken satay is nothing like the dried-out chicken on a stick you get at most Houston Thai restaurants.
I have now tried all three satays served at Noodle House 88, a "Chinese-Indonesian" restaurant in the newly opened Asian shopping center at Bellaire and Beltway 8. The chicken and pork are excellent, and the beef satay isn't far behind.
The Indonesian version of chicken satay is made with dark thigh meat that stays juicier than the white breast meat that's usually used in Thai cooking. And the flavor sparkles thanks to the intriguing spice mix used in the marinade.
Noodle House 88
9889 Bellaire Blvd., 713-771-8909.
11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays.
Egg noodle salad: $5
Fish cake: $5
Rujak juhi: $6 Fried bean sprout salted fish: $7.25
Most of us think of satay as Thai food. But in reality, satay, like much of the rest of Thai cuisine, comes from the much older culture of Indonesia. Indonesian cuisine has always been a mystery to me, although I have written about it in these pages before.
Shortly after arriving in Houston, I reviewed Mata Hari Indonesian restaurant at 1910 Dairy Ashford. And then I returned to that address five years later, after Mata Hari had closed and Yanti Indonesian restaurant opened in the same space.
In both reviews, I tried the rijsttafel, a smorgasbord of Indonesian dishes favored by the Dutch, who ruled Indonesia for 350 years. From the array of little dishes, I attempted to make sense of it all. But in fact, Dutch-Indonesian food is as hybridized as our Tex-Mex.
It was the dimly lit bar that was really the main attraction at both restaurants at 1910 Dairy Ashford. This bar has long been a favorite hangout for Houstonians who have spent time in Indonesia. (The country is a major petroleum producer.) Dipping shrimp chips in sambal, drinking beer and chatting with the old Asian hands was the most rewarding part of the experience.
Noodle House 88 doesn't have a bar. In fact, it looks just like all the other little Asian restaurants on either side of it in the shopping center. In the front window, there are photos of most of the dishes served. (You can see the same photos on the restaurant's Web site, www.noodlehouse88.com.)
The first time I went, I ordered dishes that looked like other stuff I already liked. I tried some tasty Suharti fried chicken, some spicy wide rice noodles that tasted a lot like my favorite Thai noodle dish, pad kee mao, and an order of pork satay. The food was excellent, but my choices weren't very adventurous.
I would have completely overlooked the most remarkable Indonesian street foods offered at Noodle House 88 if I hadn't returned with an Indonesian food expert.
Otak otak, gado gado, soto, rujak juhi, nasi goreng, satay — the dishes just kept coming. I had asked James Oseland, the editor of Saveur magazine and author of a new Indonesian cookbook called Cradle of Flavor, to order for us. Oseland selected dishes that he considered good tests of authenticity.
The book, which I didn't get around to reading until after Oseland left town, includes a fascinating cultural history of Indonesian foods. For instance, I learned that satay (spelled sate in Indonesia) is a Javanese adaptation of the kebab, which was introduced by Arab spice merchants. I wish I had read his book before we got to the restaurant. Then I might not have sounded like such a goober as I mispronounced and misunderstood so much of what was set in front of me.
I always thought fish cakes were battered and fried patties. Turns out that Indonesian otak otak are "fish cakes" made out of fish pounded to a paste in a mortar with spices, green onions, and sugar. The paste is then rolled and grilled inside strips of banana leaves. You unwrap the amazing sweet and smoky-flavored fish fingers like tamales and dip them in spicy peanut sauce.
The most popular street snacks in Indonesia are "salads" such as gado gado. You can call Noodle House 88's gado gado a salad if you want, but this mélange of watercress, long beans, cabbage, carrots, cucumbers, green onions and fried tofu rectangles tossed in a thick chile-spiked peanut sauce and garnished with crispy shrimp chips was a satisfying meal unto itself.
We also got an order of nasi goreng with sator. "Nasi goreng" means "fried rice," and it's practically the national dish of Indonesia. Sator is a bean that looks like a lima bean and smells like furniture polish. It's usually known as "stink bean" in English. I have had them before in Thai restaurants in Houston. The ones that came in our nasi goreng were relatively odorless — although I am not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing.
My biggest surprise was a dish of stir-fried bean sprouts with pieces of dried fish. I never thought of bean sprouts as anything more than flavorless filler. But here was a plate of mung bean sprouts stir-fried with garlic, chiles, soy sauce and black pepper and dotted with extremely salty dried fish. The sprouts were cooked, but still crisp, and each one crunched between my teeth with a lovely bitter flavor that melded with the oil, garlic and pepper like a big warm mouthful of cooked salad.
The most wonderfully bizarre dish that Oseland ordered was called soto. The yellow soup looked like coconut milk curry with chunks of beef and pieces of the stomach lining you get in menudo floating around in it. Oseland told me the broth was scented with a variety of aromatics including kaffir lime leaves and daun salam leaves. (I had never even heard of daun salam before). It was served with a little plate on the side that held green chile sambal, lime quarters and bitter fried melinjo chips. (I'd never heard of those either.) The wild combination of flavors was sensational — if you like spicy coconut milk curry and you like Mexican menudo, go try some of this stuff.
Indonesian cuisine is among the most ancient on the planet. Thanks to ideal agricultural conditions and easy sea travel, villages, towns and kingdoms arose on the Indonesian island of Java in the earliest days of human civilization. The Javanese were trading with India and China several centuries B.C., while the bounty of spices attracted Arab traders and with them, the Islamic religion.
At a time when pepper and cinnamon were more valuable than gold, the Europeans became obsessed with the Spice Islands. Cutting out the Arab middlemen was part of the cause of the Crusades and the reason Columbus sailed West to get East. Colonized as the "Dutch East Indies" in the 1600s, the area was ruled by Holland for over 300 years, until the Japanese invaded during World War II.
Today, more than 230 million people live on the 17,000 plus islands of Indonesia, and they come from a staggering variety of ethnicities. Their national motto is often translated "many yet one," which is awfully close to our own E pluribus unum.
Noodle House 88 calls itself a "Chinese-Indonesian" restaurant. I asked Oseland what that meant. He explained that the Chinese ethnicity is common in Indonesia, just as it is in Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and the rest of Southeast Asia.
But Chinese-Indonesians are different, Oseland explained. They are sometimes discriminated against in Indonesia. Hence they were forced to assimilate. Their food tastes typically Indonesian — except for the noodles. Like most Indonesians, they eat a lot of rice, but Chinese-Indonesian cuisine is also famous for its noodle dishes.
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On a lunch visit, I sampled an egg noodle salad, a combination of noodles, vegetables and peanut sauce that cost $5. It was so tasty, my dining companion and I fought over it with dueling chopsticks.
Oseland and I also sampled another noodle salad called rujak juhi. Oseland said it was usually called mi gado gado in Indonesia. It consisted of gado gado salad tossed with the kind of curly egg noodles called mi in Chinese and Vietnamese cuisine. The flavor reminded me of Thai noodle salads I love to eat in the heat of a Houston summer. And I plan on frequenting this place regularly when the weather turns warm.
As Oseland and I left the restaurant, I asked him what he thought. I was a little shocked at his response. "Home-cooked Indonesian food is my favorite," Oseland said. The menu at Noodle House 88 includes Indonesian street food classics mixed up with some more formal dishes, so it's a bit of a mish-mash. "But it's better than anything I've had in New York and almost as good as the best places in L.A.," he said. "I'd say it's among the best Indonesian restaurants I've been to in the U.S."
Odds are you haven't been sitting on the edge of your seat waiting for some good gado gado. But the next time the urge for a culinary adventure strikes, check out Noodle House 88 and its otak otak, soto, and spicy noodle salads.