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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
–Final verdict: Mari Makan!
Warung Pojok/Warjok Asli
Pondok Indah Mall
Jl. Metro Pondok Indah
Jakarta 12310, Indonesia
+62 (21) 7506872