Unless you're Indonesian or married to one, it's probably safe to assume you've never heard of gudeg, a dish of young jackfruit braised in coconut milk, palm sugar and spices until it turns soft and ruddy. In OC, where Indonesian food is too often mistaken for Malaysian or Singaporean, gudeg sightings are as rare as the Indonesian restaurants that serve it. Unlike rendang and satay, gudeg hasn't yet been adopted by the Malays or the Thais. It's still uniquely Javanese, hailing from Yogyakarta, a city forever linked to the dish as New England is to clam chowder.
To see gudeg is to know why it remains almost exclusively a regional specialty. It's not an attractive mound of food. Largely monochromatic (in shades of brown and beige), it's served without anything green as garnish. The word gudeg specifically refers to the jackfruit component, which looks like a fallen-apart pot roast to the untrained eye. But just as a Thanksgiving turkey without its trimmings, gudeg isn't complete without its typical sides of a hard-boiled egg, tofu, chicken cooked in a coconut curry, and slippery beef rinds simmered in a chile-spiked hell sauce called sambal goreng krecek. The whole meal has to be eaten with plenty of rice.
Where to find gudeg? Unless you're Indonesian or married to one, it's also safe to assume you've never heard of Indo Ranch in Lake Forest, which offers it—but not all the time. I've seen it only once in four trips, safely stowed in a refrigerated display case because Indo Ranch isn't technically a restaurant, but rather an Indonesian grocer that functions as an imported-goods supplier of regional products such as Blue Band margarine and tapioca crackers called krupuk.
This past summer, the owner told me she planned to start operating as a full-service restaurant by the end of August. That never happened, but it's probably better this way. Her store has barely a dining table, and with the Indonesian diaspora not concentrated anywhere near the idylls of Lake Forest, it's wiser for her to continue to do her food the way she has.
She cooks in the morning—normally a few simple meals such as a sweet-marinated fried chicken—and then packages them in to-go containers, storing her offerings in the cooler for customers to pick up throughout the day. The food does not suffer from this. Even after reheating in a microwave, everything will still be at its most optimal. Some dishes actually become tastier the longer they sit. Time allows spices to marry, stews to thicken and curries to intensify.
It is best to come on Sundays, when the variety of offerings rivals the number of islands in the Indonesian archipelago. Martabak manis has crushed peanuts, cheese and chocolate sprinkles sandwiched between a thick, pancake-like pillow so buttery it sweats yellow grease. Minced chicken and mushrooms top egg-noodle ribbons of the mie ayam, a meal served with a clear sipping broth and the spring-loaded chew of bakso, Indonesian beef meatballs. Nasi kuning, rice rendered yellow by turmeric, is elaborate, complete with scrambled egg; crispy nibbles of sugar-coated, fried anchovies; a piece of chicken slathered in peanut sauce; and a plastic baggie of urap urap, a spicy salad of boiled cabbage and green beans tossed with grated coconut. Nasi uduk, rice steamed to savory with coconut milk, features a tender piece of rendang coated in its own cooked-down spice paste, a hard-boiled egg steeped in a bright-red chile sauce and a bronzed drumstick of fried chicken.
If you're lucky enough to see gudeg, it will be offered without rice. Indo Ranch's version is close to perfect despite missing the beef rinds in the sambal. But aside from that coveted dish, it will be the nasi bungkus that will sell out the fastest. A complete meal of rice and meat, nasi bungkus is wrapped inside a banana leaf that imparts a faintly botanical, almost vanilla-like aroma to everything it touches. If drive-thrus existed in the jungle, this is how the takeout containers would look. Once you've unfurled the leafy packaging, you see green-chili sambal waiting furtively in one corner, a tempeh stir fry in another, more beef rendang, a piece of chicken, a hard-boiled egg and lodeh, a coconut-milk soup with veggies packed in a sandwich baggie. The soup is to be reheated and slurped as an accompaniment to the rice.
Oh, and before you venture there, check Indo Ranch's Facebook page, which is occasionally updated with what's available. There are days when the selection is scant; I suspect what's available are items unsold from the day before. If you go midweek, there most certainly won't be gudeg—because if there's any left by Monday, I would've already claimed it.
This review appeared in print as “Java to Go: Indo Ranch in Lake Forest isn't a restaurant, but it still celebrates the dishes of Indonesia in to-go containers.”
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.