Zen Ong knows the story line sounds predictable: He grew up feeling like the “token Asian” at school (his family is Indonesian; he was raised north of Sydney), resisted speaking the language at home, begged his mom for Wonder Bread sandwiches in his lunchbox instead of leftover curry.
At 25, he left his native Australia and flew to Los Angeles on the Fourth of July to help Louis Tikaram — another Aussie — open E.P. & L.P. in West Hollywood. He thought he’d be there for a year. Instead, he met his future wife at the restaurant, got a green card and became close with a tight-knit group of rising Asian American chefs including Jon Yao of Kato, Mei Lin of Nightshade and Sabel Braganza of E.P. & L.P.
Like many L.A. newcomers, Ong was struck by the stunning breadth of restaurant options. But at the highest levels of dining, “The flavor profiles were similar,” he said, and he lamented the lack of refined Asian food, particularly from Southeast Asia, to his new friends.
With their encouragement — and after stints cooking at Nightshade and Kato — Ong launched Inda, an Indonesian-inspired tasting-menu pop-up, in March. The monthly dinners bring together his mom’s recipes, the food he ate at his grandmother’s house during twice-yearly childhood trips to Indonesia and the techniques he honed working in fine-dining kitchens in Sydney.
At the start of the most recent pop-up, held in a sleek second-floor event space in Koreatown, diners seated at a long chef’s counter unsealed envelopes with their names scrawled on the front. Tucked inside were the night’s $139 menu and a signed letter from Ong, now 30, with a mission statement: “to showcase a cuisine and culture that we believe is underrepresented.”
What followed were 10 precise, seafood-driven courses imbued with powerful sambals, bright spices and the gentle sweetness of coconut milk. Grilled sea bass was buried underneath a turmeric-intensive curry thickened with wisps of sweet potato leaves and dotted with golden trout roe. Dungeness crab curry was served with doughnut-hole-sized bakpau goreng, or fried bao, for dipping, the crustacean’s hollowed-out shell perched atop the bowl like a lid.
Ong also has been experimenting with vegan dishes and pushing his menu in a lighter direction. So what began as a beef rendang course during the first Inda dinner was replaced with a fish version by the second; in the latest iteration, chunky umami-loaded mushroom rendang was spooned onto lacy roti jala and a pristine sesame leaf.
“I was confident it wouldn’t be a stretch to get people to wrap it up and eat it the same way they would eat a taco,” he said.
Our generation is the generation that is going to execute the food we grew up with really well, and I think Zen is totally part of that wave. I feel like he ends up being the L.A. icon.
Ong introduced and explained each course, earnest and charming as he made his way down the row of diners, weaving in stories from his childhood with brief remarks on Indonesian flavors and classic dishes.
One standout was kembang goyang, a flower-shaped savory cookie so stencil-like and intricate it would have looked at home dangling from a Christmas tree. The deep-fried rosette was topped with raw striped bass, a lobe of Santa Barbara sea urchin and sweet corn puree, a nod to the Indonesian corn fritter bakwan jagung, Ong said; the oniony note in the cookie, meanwhile, was meant to evoke Funyuns.
“Authenticity doesn’t have to mean limitations,” he told the 11 diners. “It can serve as inspiration.”
It’s a philosophy shared by Yao and Lin, who have introduced personalized takes on the dishes they grew up eating and are candid about their desire to see Asian cuisine be taken more seriously in the U.S.
The two have been instrumental in helping Ong get a foothold in L.A.’s dining scene; during frequent late-night group meals — typically at Sun Nong Dan, Ruen Pair or El Flamin’ Taco — he said they’ve passed along observations about the city’s changing restaurant landscape and lessons learned about commercial real estate leases. When Ong needed a place to test recipes in the weeks before debuting Inda, Lin offered up Nightshade’s kitchen in the mornings, when the Arts District restaurant was closed.
“I don’t know how I would have done it if it wasn’t for her help and how supportive she was,” Ong said.
In early December the trio, along with Braganza, held a joint pop-up at E.P. & L.P., a powerhouse collaboration that fused their respective Indonesian, Taiwanese, Chinese and Filipino cultures across eight dishes. In an Instagram post hyping the dinner, Yao used the hashtag #asianavengers.
“Our generation is the generation that is going to execute the food we grew up with really well, and I think Zen is totally part of that wave,” Yao, 28, said. “I feel like he ends up being the L.A. icon. Zen’s the person that maybe really takes advantage of the moment.”
After eight Inda dinners in six venues stretching from Chinatown to West Los Angeles, Ong is looking for something more permanent. He said he’s seeking a small space in Hollywood or Koreatown, where he’s hoping to open a 12- to 15-seat chef’s counter restaurant this year.