When you’re in the mood for a really exotic beverage, something green and slimy that could make the Addams Family happy, the Indonesian restaurant Borobudur Garden is the place to go. A standard sticky-table oblong, heavy on good smells but light on decor, Borobudur--whose sign reads, for some reason, Indonesian Garden--is set in a pan-Asian mini-mall where you can also stop for a Slurpee at the 7-Eleven or choose between Thai, Taiwanese, Vietnamese and Cantonese-barbecue food, browse through videos at the Taiwanese Cultural Center or head into the pizza joint and get a large one with anchovies to go. Even in the international city of San Gabriel, which houses only slightly fewer nationalities than the U.N. general assembly, this mall--and this restaurant--stand out.
Indonesian food is not uncommon in the Southland, but good Indonesian food is--cooking that goes beyond a one-dimensional sugariness to illuminate an array of tastes greater perhaps than that of any other cuisine. Borobudur Garden might be a greasy spoon, but it’s a great greasy spoon, focused and satisfying, with crisp shreds of fried tripe, sticky with dark soy and garlic; with meltingly tender beef rendang , redolent of a dozen spices; with pungent mee goreng noodles fried with chicken, cabbage and herbs. In the late afternoon, Borobudur Garden becomes something of an Indonesian malt-shop, filled with teen-agers nursing sweet drinks and slurping down big bowls of noodles; on weekends, its popular with families. And at the moment, it’s my favorite Indonesian cafe in town.
As at any Indonesian restaurant, a large part of the menu is taken up by soup and salad--most of the salads being sauced with a sweet, chile-hot peanut dressing that could probably improve anything from roast beef to pancakes. Skip the mainstream gado gado ; try the rujak salad topped with crunchy betel-nut chips that taste sort of the way that church incense smells, tossed with bean sprouts, sliced bean curd and hard-boiled eggs and shot through with chewy strips of cooked cuttlefish, whose vaguely marine flavor ties the dish together. Another salad is nothing more than a quartered cabbage and a sliced cucumber, ready to be dipped piece by piece into a musky, fiery chile sambal.
Order lamb soup, and you’ll get a bowl of intense, chile-red coconut curry, singing with garlic and lemon grass, puddled around a mound of lamb ribs whose meat is tender enough to cut with a baby’s lips. It’s good enough to make a strong man whimper with joy--strong men, get your lamb soup to go. Laksa involves noodles, coconut milk and a mild, lightly curried chicken broth, fragrant with vegetables and herbs; lontong involves fluffy rice cakes, hard-boiled egg and cooked vegetables set in a similar curry, and showered with Borobudur Garden’s house garnish: half an ounce of golden-fried minced garlic. Tripe soup has a strong tripe broth and plenty of well-cooked tripe.
Half the tables always seem to have crisp-skinned fried chicken on them, either daubed with the terrific sweet-hot Sumatran-style fresh-chile sauce called belado -- belado ‘s also good on fried fish--or marinated in dark soy. The fried fishcake’s decent too, though not up to the standard of Agung.
And the beverage, the slimiest one anyway, is called es cendol , and involves coconut milk, something lime-colored, and bright-green squiggles of translucent grass jelly that look like somebody took a great deal of trouble to squirt gel toothpaste into your drink. There’s also es avocado, which involves avocados, crushed ice and a sweet syrup--the combination heightens the sweet, herbal tang of the ripe fruit--and es teler , a popular combo of jackfruit, avocado and grated baby coconut. Es cendol is pretty tasty, actually, with sort of a roasty, not oversweet coconut flavor, and is extremely fun to spoon up around a squeamish person.
Borobudur Garden, 821 W. Las Tunas Drive, San Gabriel, (818) 281-6521. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Cash only. No alcohol. Lot parking. Takeout. Dinner for two, food only, $9-$15.