To understand Indonesian food, one should first understand the country’s cultural makeup. Indonesia’s largely native demographic is heavily influenced by a hodgepodge of Arabic, Chinese, Indian and European immigration that has brought a mixed bag of techniques and ingredients to the cuisine.
The Chinese introduced soy sauce, Indians brought turmeric for curry, the Europeans contributed peanuts for satay sauce and chili peppers popular in sambals (crushed pepper sauce), and the Arabic influence instilled halal, Islamic dietary laws. Indonesia is also split up into provinces, each area varying its styles similar to the differences in regional cuisines of China and India.
Everything I’ve mentioned is encompassed by Tempo Doeloe. This includes the practice of halal, even though the owners, the Ariesandi family, are Christians. That means there is no pork or alcohol on the menu. Although I spied hot dog in a fried rice dish, halal practitioners can relax. The hot dog is chicken-based.
The restaurant takes casual dining to the extreme. Diners eat at narrow foldout tables, if the restaurant gets crowded, pull a plastic stool from the stack that is set to the side and fit in where you can. Most dishes are plated on disposable ware, and you’ll have to serve yourself water from a cooler and dispose of your refuse thereafter. Don’t let the relaxed atmosphere fool you, though; the food at its best entices and is reason alone to make the trek.
A lot of dishes on Tempo Doeloe’s menu are comprised of protein, vegetable and starch, heavily leaning on protein. Notable is the nasi salero kito ($7.49), a sampler of the food at its best. There is a small scoop of beef rendang, which are tender cubes of beef that have been slow cooked in rich dark gravy of coconut milk, gingery galangal and a host of other spices that dial the heat up a notch. The grilled bone-in chicken on this dish is flavored in a curry seasoning blend concocted by the Ariesandi matriarch, and is heavy on turmeric, the yellow spice commonly used in curry dishes. It is incredibly flavorful throughout and pull-apart tender. But the star on this dish is a bed of stewed collards that is smoky in flavor, which I’m told is due to grilled belachan (concentrated shrimp paste, also known as terasi in Indonesian) added to it. Cradled in the greens are two unctuous chunks of squiggly beef tendon stained in the curry seasoning and flavored with the smoky belachan.
Belachan also is used in the restaurant’s house-made sambal terasi. It is a chili paste served for dipping with ayam penyet ($6.49), fried marinated Cornish hen flavored with rich curry flavors and containing a thin crisp outer skin. The vegetable soup that is served with this dish disappoints. The thin murky soup is sweet with hints of tang, and the broth contains colorless vegetables that appear as though they have been floating in the warm soup all day.
Javanese fried chicken (named after Java Island in Indonesia, where the Ariesandis are from), in the form of a drumstick and prepared in the same manner as ayam penyet, is available in the si-u-wi ($7.49). The dish also contains a fluffy centerpiece of coconut-flavored rice topped with fried shallots and surrounded by a cornucopia of protein. A lone soy sauce-flavored strip of meat looks exactly like beef jerky but gives away easily to the teeth. Then there is a hard-boiled egg and a strip of fried tofu that have been bathed in a reddish sambal oelek, a more vibrant sambal missing the belachan flavors and perkier with citrus taste.
An appetizer of ma-lor, short for martabak talor ($3.99), is a wonderful starter dish. They are square pancakes filled with ground beef (flavored with the kitchen’s curry seasoning), egg and scallions, and wrapped in thin dough wrappers before fried. The outer wrapper shatters and crackles like phyllo dough, and the savory filling punctuates the whole experience with flavor injections of that wonderful curry blend.
Tempo Doeloe in its peak hour can feel chaotic and crowded, and the staff can get behind in cleaning up after previous diners. But the food and Java, the Indonesian market next door (also run by the Ariesandis) stocked with hard-to-find ingredients, is worth the trip for an introduction to the cuisines of Indonesia.TEMPO DOELOE