Eating in the “corner”. Or: Sampling the best Jakarta has to offer in Warung Pojok

There are a few things in life that are certain: death, taxes, and the fact that Indonesia has THE BEST DAMN FOOD IN THE WORLD. Ahem, sorry, I get carried away sometimes when I talk about the cuisine of my previous homeland. Despite what you may think, I don’t blindly love every aspect of my former country. The bureaucracy and corruption there is loathsome, the chaos in the streets of Jakarta is eye-wateringly jammed, and the pollution in the city is bad enough to choke a goat. But when it comes to food, even many foreigners who have only tasted Indonesian food for the first time will testify harder than people in Christian evangelist conventions that the nosh served in Indonesia is stupefyingly awesome.

The best kind of foods in Indonesia, in this case Jakarta (as this is the city I grew up in), is usually found not in the uber high-class restaurants, but rather in the more shabby corners of the street. At many little stalls called “warungs”. This is the soul food that locals eat. Unabashedly flavourful and unbelievably cheap. I used to frequent these stalls quite often when I lived there. Unfortunately to many of us here in the west (which includes me with my now-15 years of living in Canada), the current state of our stomachs are simply too delicate and pansy-like to handle the less-than-stellar hygiene standards that normally pervades in many of these warungs. Food that the locals, with their iron stomachs, will generally consume without blinking may result in multiple trips to the shithouse for people like you and me.

Pictured: Your weak-ass stomach.

Pictured: Your weak-ass stomach. If it had a face.

But every time I go back, I want to sample all those delectable foods that I had growing up. So what’s the solution? Well for a few years now, that means heading to my now-staple destination: Warung Pojok. Interestingly translated as “corner food stall”, Warung Pojok (or Warjok for short, also known as Warjok Asli) is a franchise of restaurants serving old-school Indonesian street and stall food, packaged in a more upscale atmosphere. By “upscale” I don’t really mean Ritz Carlton-like. More akin the likes of Swiss Chalet and such. The prices are unsurprisingly higher than what you would find on the streets, but your food is served in a much cleaner environment, with a pleasant ambience, friendly service, and (this is key now) inside an air-conditioned mall. It also helps immensely that my uncle owns a couple of these franchise locations, making it considerably easier for me to have access to these lovely places.

So during the past trip, we went to the Warjok inside Pondok Indah Mall, just one of the countless malls that dot the Jakarta landscape. Pondok Indah Mall is an old mall (by Jakarta standards) as it was one of the places I frequented as a young child. Located on the top floor of the mall, right by the escalators and near the hilariously-named Fatburger, the Warjok here easily stands out due to its striking green-and-yellow decor. The place is decorated to be reminiscent of traditional Indonesian village houses of a bygone era. It’s even got various advertisements from colonial-era style magazines, along with other old memorabilia, that would strike a nostalgic chord with anyone growing up in the country. And of course this works beautifully because the dominant target market of the restaurant are, indeed, locals.

It's like looking into a time capsule. If that time capsule was from your Indonesian parents.

It’s like a cute little time capsule!

I knew immediately what I wanted to order even before we sat down: the fried oxtail. My uncle introduced it to me several visits ago (which would also mean several years ago) and it’s my go-to dish everytime I come here. WW ordered one of their specialty rice dishes: the one with chicken and spicy green chili. And we sampled the rujak, which is essentially Indonesian fruit salad with a sweet-salty dressing. So let’s first talk about my dish. I feel that I need to preface that oxtail soup is a very popular Indonesian dish. Chunks of marinated oxtail inside a heavily seasoned clear broth, sprinkled with fried onions and sliced vegetables, served with a plate of steamed white rice. It is absolutely wonderful. This Warjok dish provides a twist on this long-time favourite by coating the oxtail in a special light batter then deep-frying it. The result is beyond wonderful. The frying heightens the texture and fragrance of the oxtail dish without diminishing its meaty taste, while the soup, served separately, provides almost a cooling effect (despite the hot temperature of the broth) to the “heat” or “shang huo” of the oxtail. (my Chinese readers would know what I’m talking about). The meat also becomes extremely tender, almost like a gentle buttery caress on your tastebuds. Douse a bit of sweet soy sauce on it, mix it with the rice, and you won’t know what hit you. This time was no different. I was almost in tears of joy, such was how much I missed this dish. And as much as I love the diversity of foods in Toronto, you will never ever find one of these there.

You're on a collision course...with FLAVOUR.

You’re on a collision course…with FLAVOUR.

WW’s dish was no less impressive. Being her first time here, she decided to get a rather large rice platter which seemingly contained everything but the kitchen sink. It came with tofu, a soybean cake called tempe, soy egg, chicken cooked in thick coconut milk curry, some dried beef, and of course the green chili sambal. It was so comprehensive that it’s hard to figure out where to start. As she looked at me quizzically and wondered how to tuck in, I told her “There’s no right way of eating THAT. Just go for it”. The flavours of each ingredient were actually not overly strong, but the subtleties present nicely interplayed with each other. What you have to remember is that sambal is a way of life for Indonesians, so make sure you mix a healthy portion into each of your spoonfuls. I personally liked my dish better, but this one was also a winner. The chicken was well-marinated and, once again, extremely tender while retaining the characteristic curry-like fragrance, while each one of the accoutrements nicely complemented the other both in flavour and in texture. The tempe is also always a nice addition to every meal.

It's like an Indonesian bento box! Without the box!

It’s like an Indonesian bento box! Without the box!

Finally, we closed off with a refreshing plate of rujak. With a sweet and salty sticky dressing drizzled over the freshly cut fruits, this was a nice and light way to end the meal. The fruits themselves were of the tropical variety, ranging from guava to pear-like slices. They were mostly very watery, which actually added to the satisfying overall “feel” of the dessert.

It may seem that I’m gushing a bit here, but I really love this restaurant. In fact, many of my reunions with my Indonesian friends have taken place in this restaurant, such is how much everyone I know loves it. If you’re ever in this part of the world (I know, it’s QUITE a walk away from Toronto and the TTC doesn’t really go this far), then give Warung Pojok a try. Even though this review is based on the Pondok Indah location, feel free to visit any of their other spots (see? I’m not just promoting my uncle’s location). You won’t be disappointed. Just remember that you’re eating what the locals would normally eat in their homes and local food stalls. And if that isn’t the hallmark of a real Indonesian restaurant, I don’t know what is.

By the way, as a side note, during your visit you may notice a lovely and stylish young lady commandeering the Pondok Indah location. If you do, make sure you stop by, say hi, and possibly ask for her autograph as she is none other than my cousin, the famous Gal On Trip! She’s also sometimes seen in the Grand Indonesia location (the other one owned by my uncle).  Just don’t be creepy about it, OK?

No, that's not her.

No, that’s not her.

–Final verdict: Mari Makan!

Warung Pojok/Warjok Asli

Pondok Indah Mall

Jl. Metro Pondok Indah

Jakarta 12310, Indonesia

+62 (21) 7506872

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Sampling Jakarta’s numero uno seafood place. Or: An evening at Pondok Laguna

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.

Slightly.

Slightly.

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.

From http://1direction-ismy-husbands.tumblr.com/post/31639282324/true

Wait…I…uh…what?

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.

Believe it or not, this is the restaurant when it`s "not too full"

Believe it or not, this is the restaurant when it’s “not too full”

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.

Fry cooks in heaven are da BOMB!

Only one tofu was left by the time I took out the camera. It was THAT delicious.

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).

Pictured: Better than any calamari you're ever going to taste in Canada.

Pictured: Better than any calamari you’re ever going to taste in Canada.

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.

That fish is straight-up posing!

Ever seen a fish do “stand-up” before?

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!

Pondok Laguna

Jl. Batu Tulis Raya 45-47

Jakarta, Indonesia

+62 (213) 459992