A Snack Attack Journey
It’s the absolute end of February and thank goodness. Cold, bleak, February is the “hump month” of winter. All the more reason to find occasions for joy during it, as we did when, once again, we embarked on an ethnic snack journey to celebrate my sister Carol’s birthday. As I wrote in On the BQE to Samarkand, she and lifelong friend Olga are always up for a culinary adventure. This year, we ventured to Indonesia via the BMT line. The only Indonesian food the Chef and I had ever tasted was in Amsterdam, the Dutch influenced rijstaffel (rice table), with its 24+ small courses and lots and lots of rice. However one only has to cross under the East River to enjoy the delights of real Indonesian fare in Elmhurst, Queens.
We decided to meet at a relative newcomer, Awang Kitchen, which has great Yelp reviews and the stamp of approval from ethnic eater par excellence, Ligaya Mishan, of the New York Times "Hungry City" column. Indonesian food is as diverse as the 600 islands that make up the country, with each region boasting different influences—from Sumatran dishes with Middle Eastern and Indian influences and indigenous Javanese food with its Chinese flavors to Eastern Indonesia, which borrows form Polynesia and Melanesia. How appropriate, then, that Indonesians have made their home in a part of Queens that offers stores with ingredients from all over the world?
So, to our adventure: the Chef set out on foot walking the eight miles from Morngingside Heights to Elmhurst, and the rest of us took our separate train and Uber journeys. Awang is on Queens Boulevard, which the Chef calls, along with Northern Boulevard, “the most soul destroying strip in New York City.” When I showed up late and breathless, Olga, Carol and the Chef were already chatting with the waiter. Olga looked at me pointedly, “Nincy,” she said, “Are you not surprised that our waiter is from Kiev?” Olga is gregarious and engages strangers in conversation wherever we go. Indonesian waiter, André, with his broad open face and swatch of dyed blond hair, had heard Olga’s thick accent and revealed he had spent his entire childhood in Kiev, where his parents were working. Through this immediate Russian connection with Olga, he took an immediate liking to us and we followed his recommendations pretty much to the letter.
To start we had Pempek Palembang, a fried savory fish cake with an egg filling served with sweet/sour chili sauce atop noodles and cucumber ($7.00), Tahu Gejrot ($5.00), fried tofu with chili, garlic, palm sugar and shallots, and, because the Indonesian entrees skewed to meat and rice, we ordered the Gado-Gado Jakarta ($8.00), mixed steamed vegetables that André insisted we have. Of these, the Indonesian “Scotch Egg” on noodles was the most interesting, but we also loved the tofu; it had the texture of dressing-soaked croutons in a Tuscan bread salad. So light and airy, but fiery from the wonderful chili sauce. Alas, the mixed vegetables were a disappointment, just chunks of tempeh, lots of lettuce and vermicelli noodles smothered in peanut sauce. I will enjoy anything smothered in an Asian peanut sauce, but I wouldn’t recommend this.
For our mains, Olga ordered a version of what is thought of as the Indonesian national dish, Nasi Goreng. Her Nasi Tim Ayam Jamur ($8.00) was a kind of upside down steamed rice cake, in which chopped chicken, mushrooms and even a quail’s egg cook at the bottom of a pot of steamed rice are then flipped over and served atop the rice. A comforting dish, it comes with a restorative side of chicken soup. Beef Rendang ($9.00) was a parsimonious serving of too few amazingly tender chunks of beef in coconut sauce, flavored subtly with tamarind, anise, ginger and turmeric. And, the Chef was quite happy with his Tongseng Kambing, curried young goat ($11.00), which had too many bony bits for my liking, though the curry sauce was tasty, indescribably different from others we’d had. The Chef kept wondering, throughout, what made Indonesian food taste so different, while I kept thinking much of it tasted much more familiar than I expected: to me it seemed similar to Thai food for its reliance on ginger, peanuts, curry, coconut and even a touch of lemongrass.
So would I go again to Awang? Sure! Judging by Ligaya Mishan’s review, she went on several visits. The menu is so voluminous, I would want to try the famed “tennis ball” and “pregnant” meatballs (bakso). The service, especially from waiter André, was excellent, and you can’t beat a $63 price tag for a birthday feast for four.
The Bizarre at the Bazaar and a Walk Down Broadway
Because Carol had Ubered her way to Elmhurst, she had arrived a full half hour before the rest of us. “Look out for ‘Snack Attacks’” I texted her from my delayed R train. Soon I was getting photos of crowds of people, still bundled in their winter coats, shoveling fried tidbits into their mouths. “St. James Church Indonesian Food Bazaar,” Carol texted, saying we should go there for “treats” after our lunch.
Hah! We waddled out of Awang Kitchen vaguely thinking to get some bizaare Indonesian dessert at the bazaar at St. James Church on Broadway. We were sated, but we could still soak in some culture. And soak it in we did. Dozens of people sat on folding chairs in the middle of a room ringed with tables sagging under the weight of their offerings. There were whole stands devoted to those Indonesian "tennis ball," "ping pong" and "pregnant" meatballs I am keen to try; I couldn't help wondering later if this was just another Asian take on the Scotch egg, but a quick Google showed me that pregnant bakso are just scarily huge! Rice was served in every possible way--as sweetened green-dyed dessert cakes or wrapped in banana leaves. Teams of women folded wads of...something...into dumplings. And at each table there was such good cheer and hospitality, I wished we were not so full, because I would have loved to sample the (mainly fried) fare.
Then, as we were making our way out to further explore the Elmhurst patch of Broadway, a main Queens artery, we heard loud drumming and packs of teens came rushing in the church, two inside a giant lions head. A teen girl beat a large drum and the lion danced, cajoled and implored each of the vendors who threw red packets, presumably of cash, into its mouth. What a happy coincidence that our visit on February 17 coincided with the Lunar New Year's Celebrations! "Wow, what a shake down operation," the chef observed, faking cynicism as we walked out of the church and saw lions and teens multiplying before our eyes, going into the local cell phone shops or nail salons. Most likely this is the way youth groups get funding for their activities and good deeds. Yet, we even saw a few shlumpy looking "bule" (foreigners) clanging symbols with one of the lion dancing groups. As we wandered down Broadway, we saw another wonderful "only in Queens Indonesia" sight: groups of girls wearing puffy down jackets over long flowing silk dresses. Clearly they were going to a New Year's ceremony.
After a stop for Vietnamese tea and coffees (with condensed milk and LOTS of sugar) at JoJu, Olga and Carol said goodbye, and the Chef and I walked the stretch of Broadway between Elmhurst and Astoria. I stopped now and then to take quintessentially Queens pictures, like the one above of a building that housed a Korean BBQ restaurant, a "steam and dry" sauna, a barber shop and a "snooker" parlor! Walking from Elmhurst to Astoria along Broadway, you go from Indonesia and Taiwan and Vietnam to Thailand and Columbia and Ecuador and then between Woodside and Astoria there is a kind of boring no-man's land until you find Greek emporia abutting Irish bars. Our final destination was a nod to the encroaching gentrification of Queens, Astoria Bier and Cheese, a wonderful low-key artisanal store and restaurant that excels in just two things, beer, cheese and maybe pickles, too. Yet, just five minutes of sitting with our beers, we were overwhelmed by the smell of kimchee. On may way to the bathroom, I saw the source: a kitchen staff member making huge quantities of pickled "slaw" to go in this hipster haven's Vietnamese grilled cheese. Once in the bathroom I looked up on the wall to see an inexplicable artwork by Caryn Cast of Kim Jong-Il milking a cow. Huh? I ❤️ Queens!
8405 Queens Boulevard
Indonesian Food Bazaar
84-07 Broadway (btw St. James & Corona Aves.)
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Astoria Bier and Cheese