'Tis the Season for Indonesian
Warung Cafe in the Old Bank District is a good place for beginners to get to know Indonesian cuisine. With the votive candles at night, it's also a good date destination. Photo by Gary Leonard.

In the past 15 years, Thai and Indian cuisines have become plenty familiar to Angelenos. Dishes such as "pad thai" and "aloo gobi" roll off our tongues like the names of old friends.

The food of Indonesia, on the other hand, remains a mystery, mostly because there simply isn't a good Indonesian place in every neighborhood. Fortunately Downtown recently landed one, a stylish spot about half a block from Pete's, in the Hellman Building, called Warung Café. ("Warung" actually means "cafe." So the name, owner James Ramirez readily admits, is redundant. Still, it sounds good.)

Warung is a great place for Indo newbies to begin. The menu doesn't require a translator and the prices are terrific. Plus, the room has style: a soaring ceiling with exposed duct work, weathered brick walls, dramatic red curtains and several interesting displays of Indonesian crafts. At night, votive candles throughout cast a golden glow, making Warung a fine date destination.

The best appetizers are udang goreng ($6.50) and the unappetizingly named golden bag ($4). The former consists of five sweet, expertly cooked shell-on shrimp in a fragrant spiced butter. (My only gripe is that it's a bit tricky removing shrimp shells without a knife. But there were none on our table, or any of the others so far as I could tell. And I didn't bother to ask.) The latter are tiny, golden, single-bite purses (six to an order), crunchy as the best egg rolls and not at all oily. They are filled with beguilingly spiced ground pork and accompanied by a brightly flavored dipping sauce. The vinegar in the sauce nicely counters the spice of the meat.

You can also get a simple salad with a rich peanut dressing; chicken skewers called tusuk sate ayam ($3); or one of several soups. Soto ayam ($4) could be considered Indonesia's answer to Jewish chicken noodle soup. The principal difference is that it is made with rice noodles rather than egg noodles.

There are just six entrees offered at both lunch and dinner, along with one daily special. (Any entree can be ordered as part of a set lunch or dinner.) This is also a tremendous value, with lunch costing just $6.50 and dinner $10.50. Both lunch and dinner sets include a pretty, conical tower of Indonesian rice surrounded by threads of fried onion. At lunch, diners have a choice of soup or salad while the dinner includes both soup and salad.

Steak sapi is swatches of beef sauteed with red and green peppers. Tusuk sate babi are pork skewers served with peanut sauce for dipping. Mentega ayam is bite-size pieces of chicken boldly flavored with lots of peppers and mint. My favorite among the choices is kari ayam, a generous bowl of robust coconut curry with a quiet chili buzz, filled with morsels of chicken, chunks of potato and carrot florets. The rich curry goes especially well with the tender rice.

Unfortunately, because Warung doesn't serve beer or wine, you can't chase the curry with an ice cold Bintang draft. Nor does the cafe offer any of those exotic Indonesian beverages made with crushed ice and ingredients such as avocado, taro and condensed milk. Owner Ramirez says there is a plan to eventually add such items to the menu.

For now, guests with a sweet tooth have to make do with the custard ($4) that is usually available for dessert. This is hardly a sacrifice. The cool, silky egg custard, bathed in a light caramel sauce and topped with whipped cream is delicious. Whether it's authentic Indonesian fare, I can't say. But I'm not complaining. After all, we cleaned the plate.

Warung Café, at 118 W. Fourth St., is open for lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and dinner 5:30-10 p.m., Mon.-Fri. Call (213) 626-0718.

page 17, 5/2/2005

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