I'd heard that for authentic Indonesian I should head up to Elmhurst and check out Upi Jaya, so on a recent January night I headed up to Queens, with Carey's exhortations to beware of shrimp paste and other hidden non-vegetarian ingredients ringing in my ears. There were actually several vegetarian options on the menu, devoid of both shrimp paste and fish sauce, and with the aid of my friendly server I was able to put together a nice little feast.
Among the appetizers she had a few recommendations, the first being this tahu isi ($4)—tofu stuffed with vegetables, lightly battered, and then deep-fried. The filling of shredded carrot, cabbage, and bean sprouts had a slightly smoky flavor from the wok, and the batter added a nice richness to the tofu. As with many Southeast Asian cuisines, the condiments helped make the dish. The tiny chilies on the plate are no mere decoration, but add fiery heat to every mouthful (if you are brave enough to mix them in with the vegetables). There was also sweet soy sauce, almost as thick and as sweet as molasses, to help balance out the savory flavors.
That sweet soy sauce also worked very well with the perkedel kentang ($4), deep-fried potato fritters. My server described it to me as mashed potatoes, deep fried, which is fairly accurate. There wasn't much flavor in the potatoes, but the crispy outer layer was a good counterpoint to the creamy interior.
When it came to entrees there were several things that intrigued me. Although my server kept trying to get me to order the gado gado, I was afraid that the steamed vegetables would be too bland, even with their peanut sauce. Instead I ordered the lontong sayur ($6.50, pictured at the top), and thank goodness I did—it was one of the best dishes I've eaten in a long while. You start with a spicy, sweet, and creamy curry, coating a mix of vegetables and sticky rice cakes. Then you add a hard boiled egg, deep-fried just long enough to give it a golden, chewy outer crust, and top it with hot chilies. Then you add the onion crackers (in a non-vegetarian version, these would undoubtedly be shrimp crackers), savory and crisp, which began to snap, crackle and pop as they hit the liquid curry. It satisfied nearly every food craving I could think of; even the fact that it was served at just a hint above room temperature did not impede my enjoyment of the dish at all. I could eat this every day.
Another dish that intrigued me was the belado jengkol, described as a pickled "dash," or nut, in a chili sauce. However, my server refused to sell it to me on the grounds that it smells terrible and has the texture of a hard rubber band. That kind of pitch would normally sound like a challenge to me, but I could see that she would not relent so instead I ordered the sayur nangka, curried jackfruit. I have long heard that jackfruit makes an excellent vegetarian entree. Unfortunately the restaurant was out of jackfruit, so my server instead recommended the sayur daun singkong ($6), made with kale. Here the kale was cooked expertly, highlighting its cabbage-y flavor, though the curry was much milder than the one with the rice cakes. Taking bites of the kale after that spicier curry was a good way to cool down the inside of my mouth.
I left Upi Jaya very full, but more importantly with a better understanding and a fondness for Indonesian food. If the restaurant wasn't so far from my home I would be there all the time; as it is I'm trying to figure out how many visits it would take for me to become a regular, and how long after that it would take before they allowed me to try that pickled nut dish. In the meantime, there's a lot more on the menu for me to sample.
76-04 Woodside Avenue, Elmhurst NY 11373 (map)
About the author: Howard Walfish is a Virginia native who has been living in New York since 2003. He is, in fact, a vegetarian, and is the co-founder of Eat to Blog and the creator of BrooklynVegetarian.