By Suzanne Parker
In this most multicultural of boroughs, arguably the capital of exotic comestibles, we are always on the lookout for something new and delicious.
Thai restaurants, once edgy cuisine, abound in almost every nabe, with even a sprinkling of Thai dishes offered at Chinese take-out joints. Though not as ubiquitous as Thai, Vietnamese purveyors of pho and or bahn mi have also proliferated. Some Malaysian can now be found here and there.
So what’s next? If we were betting, we would put our money on Indonesian.
Indonesian cuisine is an eclectic mashup of indigenous, Chinese, Indian and European colonial, especially Dutch, influences. Until recently, to sample its delights you had a choice of one or two dedicated restaurants, or attending one of the periodic Indonesian food bazaars at Masjid al-Hikmah in Astoria. Now there’s Awang Kitchen, a new kid on the block, or rather the Boulevard. It’s on Queens Boulevard, at the fringes of Elmhurst’s Southeast Asian enclave. When we were there, the majority of our fellow diners appeared to be Indonesian.
Awang Kitchen is a tiny, no-frills, freshly decorated cafe. Its owner, who by custom goes by this single name Awang, is from Jakarta, so the emphasis here is on street foods you might find in his native city. Besides Indonesian food, Awang Kitchen also offers other Asian dishes, such as sushi and bibimbap, but we chose to focus on the authentic Jakartan dishes that are Awang’s forte.
We started with a couple of fried dishes, Tempeh Mendoan and Stuffed Fried Tofu. We were especially drawn to the tempeh because, although generally thought of as being very similar to tofu, it is distinctive to Indonesia. Tempeh differs from tofu in that it is made from the whole bean, fermented, and has more protein and fiber than tofu, and has a meatier mouth feel.
The tempeh came as a duet of lightly battered fried cutlets with a sweet, soy-based chili sauce with a pronounced kick. The stuffed tofu was filled with a mixture of shrimp and vegetables, surrounded by a creamy layer of tofu with a crunchy exterior. The shrimp weren’t readily discernable from the vegetables in the filling, but tasty nonetheless.
The Beef Rendang, one of Jakarta’s Dutch-influenced signature dishes, tasted like your mother’s best pot roast kicked up a few notches of heat. The dish was expertly prepared with decent-quality meat. It came with a mixed veg, jasmine rice, and a fried boiled egg. A dish of incendiary chili sauce was provided for those who like extra heat or self-flagellation.
Ikan Bawal Bakar (grilled pompano fish) was a bit of a project. It was a whole grilled fish slathered with a fishy sweet, soy-based sauce, accompanied by more of the hot chili sauce that came with the redang. The fish was sweet and fresh-tasting, but a lot of work to consume. You have to be prepared to laboriously pick the flesh off numerous tiny bones. Not sure if the reward justified the effort.
For dessert, we indulged a taste that we acquired in Hawaii — durian. Durian is that weird-looking fruit, with a custardy consistency, that tastes sweet but stinks to high heaven. It’s a favorite in Indonesia and other parts of Asia. If a fruity smoothie with a slightly funky undertone appeals to you, by all means, go for it.
The Bottom Line: Awang Kitchen is one of those Queens treasures where you can immerse yourself in an exotic foreign culture and sample some tasty grub, all without putting a major dent in your wallet.
Suzanne Parker is the TimesLedger’s restaurant critic and author of “Eating Like Queens: A Guide to Ethnic Dining in America’s Melting Pot, Queens, N.Y.” She can be reached by e-mail at qnsfo
If you go
8405 Queens Boulevard
Elmhurst, New York 11373
Price Range: Inexpensive
Setting: Small, minimalist, clean, cheerful
Service: Friendly and efficient
Hours: Sunday–Thursday 11 am–10 pm; Friday–Saturday 11 am–11 pm
Takeout: Yes (Yelp EAT24)
Credit cards: Yes
Noise level: Acceptable
Handicap accessible: Yes
WIFI: Yes PASS: bebkijo