I know I haven’t posted for pretty much three weeks, and the reason for that is because I’ve been travelling a tad. And by “a tad” I mean I flew over 15,000 kilometres across the decidedly small pond called the Pacific Ocean to the city of my birth, Jakarta. Land of expensive shopping malls and slightly congested traffic.
Despite a bout with indigestion (most likely brought upon myself due to massive overMAKANing there), I would say that I had a really good trip. And now, as my trip is winding down, I’ve decided to write a review about a restaurant that I’ve loved since the days when I was a wee boy growing up in Jakarta: Pondok Laguna. It’s no coincidence that it was one in an (ashamedly) long list of places I wanted to eat at when my holiday itinerary was being drawn up. It’s a hyper-popular, open-air, always-crowded, seafood restaurant located smack dab in the city. And while I know that this article may not be relevant to many of my readers (except for those in Jakarta, and YOU GUYS definitely already know about this place anyway :P), I thought why not write about it to give a little glimpse into the cuisine that I was brought up in.
Pondok Laguna is a long-standing institution (at least 20+ years) among those who love seafood in the city. It’s located in a rather cramped street close to my old elementary school in Central Jakarta. It’s a bit of a novelty among restaurants of its size due to its open air nature. And by open air I don’t really mean lack of roofs, but rather it feels like you’re eating in a long and sprawling open-roofed terrace, with no A/C. This can be a bit challenging because, for those of you who don’t know, saying that Jakarta is hot is like saying that Justin Bieber is a bit disliked by a few people.
But on any given day, people will line up during mealtimes to get their grubby paws on Pondok Laguna’s astoundingly popular signature dish: the deep fried gourami. Not to mention their assortment of other delicious seafood and traditional Indonesian dishes. This is definitely not a place for fancy frou-frou dining, which is becoming more and more widespread with the rapid growth of Jakarta’s uber-luxurious malls. This is an old-school restaurant where you sweat as you dine and you still love every minute of it. It’s classic Indonesian seafood offering, and for over two decades the locals have kept coming back for more.
After miraculously finding some parking (never a given in Jakarta) and being quickly seated thanks to my mom’s pre-dinner reservation, we ordered the fried gourami (of course), the fried squid, some curry fish head, some bean sprouts, and the fried tofu (called “tahu kipas” – which means fan tofu, which is really a fancy way of saying stuffed tofu). Fried, or “goreng” as I have mentioned in a previous article, is an important signature of Indonesian cooking, though by no means should one be equated for the other.
The fried tofu and the bean sprouts came first. The latter is delicious without being overly spectacular. It was stir-fried bean sprouts, so how far can you go, really. But the amount of flavour that is infused into each crisp bite is impressive. These Indonesians really do know how to season their vegetables (which also lead to my chronic dislike to cold Western salads, something that haunts me to this day). The fried tofu (called tahu kipas on the menu), on the other hand, was so chock-full of stuffing (from vegetables to shrimp) that it really looks like a pakora on steroids. It’s as if the cook took one look at the spongy bits inside the tofu and decided that it was a waste of space, scooped almost the whole thing out, and threw the kitchen sink in, before deep frying the whole suckers. It was ridiculously delicious, and flavourful as each ingredient complemented each other. It wasn’t like tofu, it was like heaven.
The curried fish head was also ridiculously flavourful, though since devouring animal craniums isn’t exactly my idea of a good time, I must confess that what I mostly did was pick at the meat at the neck area (do fish have necks?) while gorging down the broth. The meat I did manage to scoop out, however, was extremely tender and soft while the broth had a strong and spicy taste, with a rather pronounced coconut milk aftertaste. The fried squid was very tender, without any hint of rubberiness (always the sign of good, fresh squid) while the batter outside was crispy without being too thick. I noticed also that, unlike the mediocre calamari that I often find at many Greek restaurants in Toronto, the squid meat itself here is tasty. Most fried squid I’ve had in Toronto are, indeed, very bland outside (or should that be INside?) its tasty batter. I don’t know how the Indonesians did it, but they certainly have done it very well (which they also do in many other fried foods. They all have Ph.D’s in food marination, I guess).
And finally, the piece de resistance. The fried gourami. The WHOLE FISH is deep-fried as one singular entity, not filleted or anything like that. It was so crisp and comprehensive, it was practically standing on the plate. This has given the dish the unofficial nickname “flying fried fish”. Going against the Indonesian logic of hyper-seasoning each dish, the fried fish is actually quite bland. It is crispy on the outside and smooth on the inside, but is meant to be eaten by taking chunks of it off with your hands, dunking and/or mixing it with some sweet soy sauce and house-made sambal, and eating it with spoonfuls of warm steamed rice. DEE-LICIOUS. The sweetness of the soy sauce, the spiciness of the chili, and the crispy/smoothness of the meat itself blended very eloquently together. It was almost…poetic.
We finished the meal with some coconut juice, served inside the coconuts themselves. It was a great and refreshing way to end the evening. So overall, even though the fish was undoubtedly the star that gets top billing, the overall meal was excellent and the restaurant comes highly recommended. Sure, it’s not super-fancy, and the surroundings are a bit crowded and hot. But in a way, that is a slice of real Jakarta life, a side that not many foreigners and rich tourists get to see every day (and for the record, this is DEFINITELY a local’s restaurant, not a tourist trap). It’s also modestly priced, by Canadian standards, with an average of $7-$10 per entree.
If you’re ever in Jakarta and wondering what else is there to do other than yell at the other drivers during a traffic jam, then head here. You won’t be disappointed.
–Final verdict: Mari Makan!
Jl. Batu Tulis Raya 45-47
+62 (213) 459992