There's a glistening chicken somewhere under the blanket of crispy rice-flour crumbles. The crystalline snowflake-like particles are scattered over the entire bird, its skin sluiced with a squeeze of lime and spiced with a dab of sambal, shrimp paste and chiles ground into a pungent, penetrating blast of heat.
Time seems to stand still for that chicken: Phones quit chirping and fidgety kids suddenly snap to attention, transfixed by the fried delights of the ayam goreng kremesan at Merry's House of Chicken, a months-old Indonesian restaurant in West Covina.
The eastern edges of the San Gabriel Valley might be L.A.'s epicenter of Indonesian cuisine. Sprawling across strip malls and city lines is an archipelago of food-court cafes and full-fledged restaurants, some serving offal-intensive curries and others sweetly lacquered barbecue. But there isn't a single stick of satay at Merry's; the restaurant instead purveys classic Javanese cooking.
It's a tradition belonging to Merry Istiowati, who in younger years ran a culinary academy in Surabaya of some 3,000 students. And it's with a familial charm that the restaurant matriarch makes her House of Chicken your home.
Here, virtually everything is shared: Middle-aged couples trade bites of simmered young jackfruit; parents pass along tawny drumsticks and wings. The ayam goreng kremesan reigns, but popular too is the ayam kalasan, Javanese fried chicken imbued with a subtle sweetness.
Sautéed water spinach tossed with smashed garlic and flecks of red bell pepper brings balance. Dressed with tauco, a salty fermented soy paste, the dish lightens the load of a chicken dinner.
Turmeric-tinted soto madura and beefy sop buntut both make hearty liquid lunches. Yet neither possesses the allure of the decidedly Javanese rawon buntut, an oxtail soup stained the color of crude by kluwak, the coal-black seed of the kepayang tree. Raw kluwak is poisonous, so commercially sold seeds are washed, boiled and buried in volcanic ash to extract their toxins.
The seed's oily flesh — strange as some kind of cosmic matter— provides the base of the soup. The kluwak-enriched broth is stout and earthy, a concentrated flavor like that of a dozen mushrooms. Rising from the soup's tarry depths are two blocks of oxtail that slip off the bone with a nudge.
There's nasi bungkus wrapped in banana leaves for lunch box-like portability. Unfold it to find steamed rice, curried chicken, beef rendang, a hard-boiled egg slathered in sambal and jackfruit in a coconut curry. Or try nasi gudeg, a specialty of Yogyakarta. Surrounding a pile of steamed rice is a chicken leg braised in coconut milk, krecek (soft, chile-speckled pork rind), tofu, a hard-boiled egg cooked in soy sauce and jackfruit simmered with palm sugar, coconut milk, galangal and a clutch of other spices until it's reduced to a sweet, meaty mahogany.
Mounds of fried rice are capped with silver-skinned anchovies and odorous petai beans. Thin, rumpled noodles entangle mustard greens and miniature beef meatballs.
Drinks can serve as dessert, maybe a mug of bubblegum-pink es kelapa muda — slivers of cold young coconut in a rosy syrup — or es teler, a cup of avocado, jackfruit, palm fruit, green gelatin, coconut milk, condensed milk and shaved ice. But sipping is no substitute for a few slices of Merry's lapis surabaya, an unimaginably soft layer cake so airy it's a wonder it doesn't float right up into the summer sky.
Merry's House of Chicken
2550 E. Amar Road, Suite A5, West Covina; (626) 965-0123.
Appetizers, 85 cents to $1.50; salads and soups, $5.45 to $6.95; rice and noodle dishes, $5.95; chicken, $6.25 to $11.95; combination plates, $6.95; drinks and desserts, $1.50 to $5.
Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and noon to 9 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday. Lot parking. Credit cards accepted.
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