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By Edwin Goei
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The Power of One
Warung Pojok is the best (and only) Indonesian joint in OC
While Thai and Vietnamese cuisine have been mainstreamed into the American food scene, Indonesian cooking remains in abject obscurity, especially in Orange County. Even Filipino food, which is just as underrated, has better representation here with a handful of turo-turo joints. Indonesian food, on the other hand, is the Rodney Dangerfield of Asian cuisines—it gets no respect.
13113 Harbor Blvd.
Garden Grove, CA 92843
Region: Garden Grove
Why is the food of the fourth most populous country on Earth not even a footnote here? One reason is that most Americans don’t even know what Indonesian cooking is about. As such, they’re oblivious to its absence, as well as the fact it has influenced other beloved cuisines. (That Thai chicken satay with peanut sauce you had the other night? It’s an Indonesian invention.)
Another reason is that OC’s small Indonesian diaspora is neither centralized nor concentrated anywhere. There’s no Little Saigon or Thai Town for Indonesians, so you have to travel far and wide to find an Indonesian eatery—to LA, Bellflower, or Rowland Heights.
Lucky for us, Warung Pojok opened in Garden Grove a few months back, although it’s not so much a restaurant as it is a takeout joint offering Indonesian dishes. Its very name hints this: Warung is the Indonesian word for casual eatery. In Java, it can constitute anything from a shack hastily cobbled together from discarded aluminum siding to just a barren room where food is served. The word pojok translates to “corner.” Together, the phrase suggests something more apropos: a hole-in-the-wall.
There is no printed menu, no waitresses, no silverware. Everything is served on Styrofoam, and the place makes full use of the chafing trays left behind by the Panda Express clone that used to occupy the space. Though now, instead of heated troughs of kung pao chicken and broccoli beef, you get ayam goreng (simply fried pieces of garlic-marinated chicken) and rendang (beef braised in spices). And instead of fried rice, it’s nasi goreng (the Indonesian version of it, tinged red) and nasi kuning (turmeric-flavored rice).
Dishes are routinely rotated at the whim of the cooks, but their website is updated daily with a full list of what they’re cooking. Always a fixture is the specialty of the house: mie ayam, a classic bowl of boiled egg noodles that’s as popular in Jakarta as pizza is in New York. Dressed in flavorful oil, topped with diced chicken and mushrooms, you’re supposed to eat the noodles dry, alternating between slurping a few strands and then sipping some hot broth from a bowl. Floating like bobbing buoys in the soup will be springy beef meatballs and crisp bok choy.
Pempek, another of Warung Pojok’s specialties, hails from the island of Sumatra. Dense, bite-sized orbs of fish paste are deep-fried to a resilient chew and served soaking in a caustically spicy, acidic, slightly sweet sauce. Though it’s priced almost as much as an entrée, treat this as a snack or appetizer.
For those Indonesian or Dutch expats who are craving the Indonesian staple of gado-gado, Warung Pojok makes it—but only when they feel like it. (Check their website before heading out.) If it’s available, the dish so nice they named it twice will be drenched in a homemade peanut sauce. And although shredded lettuce constitutes most of its bulk—most recipes I’ve seen have lettuce playing only a minor role—almost all the other required ingredients are present, including a hard-boiled egg, bean sprouts and potatoes. Oil-puffed tapioca crackers, which resemble Munchos in shape and texture, add crunch and make the meal.
Still, I prefer the tahu goreng medan over the gado-gado; both are salads, but the former contains a lot more fried tofu and a thin, dark, chile-spiked dressing that made my lips buzz.
Soto ayam, traditional Indonesian chicken soup with thin rice noodles, is made bright yellow from turmeric and served with a plate of rice. Be sure to ask for some lime for squeezing. Without it, the soup can’t reach its full potential. But even with it, Warung Pojok’s soto still can’t compare to mami’s (that’s “mom” in Indonesian). But then, what restaurant food ever could, even if it is from the only—therefore, the best—Indonesian restaurant in the county?
Warung Pojok, 13113 Harbor Blvd., Garden Grove, (714) 683-8716; www.warungpojokindo.com. Open Tues.-Sun., 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Meals range from $4.50 to $6.50.