Whenever I visit a new city, the first thing I do is eat whatever the area is known for. The second thing I do is count how many Indonesian restaurants are around. I do this with the hope that someday I might find myself in a town with as many Indonesian restaurants as there are Thai joints. For the record: New York has about five, Chicago has one, Los Angeles more than a few. But so far, in most of America, the cuisine of the fourth most populous nation on Earth–the country of my birth–is still the unknown garage band that can't get a break.
Perhaps it's because Americans aren't used to the flavors. Indonesians use a sticky-sweet soy sauce called kecap manis a whole lot, and meals are usually accompanied by oil-puffed crackers we call krupuk. But you know those chicken satays smothered in peanut sauce you loved at your favorite Thai restaurant? They're actually Indonesian. As easy-to-love as most Indonesian dishes are, America has yet to embrace the cuisine the way it has Vietnamese in the past decade. Soon, however, the tide will turn. And when it does, it might be because of places such as the new Kaya Street Kitchen in Aliso Viejo.
First thing's first: Kaya Street Kitchen isn't technically an Indonesian restaurant. Dutch and Indo ex-pats looking for such straight-up Indonesian dishes as gado-gado or nasi rames will not find them here. It bills itself generally as Southeast Asian, and the food it cooks is as Indonesian as Chipotle is Mexican. But this isn't a bad thing. Kaya is priming the pump, introducing basic Indo flavors to a largely unfamiliar audience who might soon accept this food as they have pad Thai and pho. And it serves it in the most accessible way possible: in a build-your-own-bowl assembly line, with free samples at every turn.
As soon as you enter, a sea of eager smiles and a question greets you: "Have you been here before?" Since it's only been open a few weeks and everyone who comes is new to the place, a whole lot of explanations follow. But if you've been to any recent cafeteria-style fast-casual, you know how it works. If it's a taco you fancy, a worker starts by flattening roti dough in a heated press. If it's a bowl, the worker will scoop up some brown or coconut-lime rice as a base. Then, you go down the line, adding a protein and as much veggies, pickles and sambals in three levels of heat as you want.
The grilled chicken satay–which wasn't skewered but seared in large slabs on a flattop and chopped to pieces–still tasted like the chicken satays my mom makes, especially after they're drowned with a spot-on peanut sauce. The tofu cooked with chile paste and the pork-and-shrimp meatballs tie for the second-best protein, even if they only vaguely resemble the actual Indonesian dishes they're supposed to emulate. But that's fine; the flavors are there.
In fact, Kaya does best when it reinterprets. The weakest dish I tried was the coconut lemongrass steak, an attempt to re-create classic beef rendang. The meat needed a longer braise, and the spices were notably muted. But perhaps they toned it down intentionally. And what better way is there to offer it to Americans than pretend it's a Southeast Asian carne asada folded into a taco, even if the "tortilla" is something far more cake-y and saltier?
Besides, Kaya has an uphill climb as it is.
For its first OC location, it chose what's probably the toughest crowd for Indonesian food in the area. It's located in a shoppertainment complex full of chains in what's otherwise a bedroom community–a trial by fire for a cuisine that would be unfamiliar even in Asian-friendly Irvine. Perhaps the owners of Kaya Street Kitchen figured if it can work here, it could work anywhere. And the Japanese restaurant group that recently partnered with Kaya's two original founders in LA has confidence it will, with plans to open 100 more stores in the next five years.
Before that happens, I brought three Indonesian food virgins to gauge their reaction to the place. I asked them to try dabbing a little of the kecap manis on their food and told them the bottled sambal asli from Jakarta is way tastier than the Sriracha next to it. I even bought a bag of krupuk, which one friend remarked melted in his mouth like onion-y foam. When I asked them what they thought of it all, they were all unanimously in favor of it. In 20 years, when I'll be able to phone in an order of nasi goreng at my local neighborhood Indonesian joint, I hope to remember this moment as Indo food's Bethlehem.
Kaya Street Kitchen, 26731 Aliso Creek Rd., Ste. A, Aliso Viejo, (949) 415-7773; kayastreetkitchen.com. Open daily, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Dinner for two, $10-$20, food only. No alcohol.