Wong Java House
Recently at one of my gamelan rehearsals at the Indonesian consulate in Los Angeles, I asked around for recommendations on where to find some good, authentic Indonesian food. Interestingly enough, the response was unanimous: Wong Java House. After such a ringing endorsement, I knew I had to go.
Wong Java House is located in Alhambra, which is about 20 miles away from our home here in LA. Since I don’t have a car, it took us a while to finally make it out there. A casual dining spot, the restaurant has a homey ambience with walls that are adorned with Wayang Kulit (shadow puppet) engravings and traditional Indonesian decorations, giving the space a personal touch.
An older woman sat at one of the tables peeling chilis, a sight that immediately reminded me of home. In Malaysia, it is very common to see restaurant staff cutting and preparing vegetables at tables in the dining area. As it turned out, the older woman was the foster mother of Ning, the owner of the restaurant.
Looking at the menu, I was thrilled to find out that Wong Java House offers vegetarian options for all of their main meat dishes (seafood entrees not included), which is rare to find in Southeast Asian restaurants here and especially back home.
We started with the kangkung belacan, a spicy water spinach stir-fry with chilies, which was very good. The waitress then recommended we try the kremas, a customer favorite. Kremas, which means crunch, is a dish usually made with fried chicken, but I had it substituted with tofu. It was crunchy, light, oily, and delicious-- just the way I like it.
Unfortunately, they were sold out of the rendang, a dish rarely available and usually reserved for special occasions and festivals. Rendang is a very flavorful, spicy curry dish. The dish is very labor-intensive, taking about seven hours to make.
It’s very difficult to get the recipe just right, and it often falls short because of this. But when it’s made right, it is absolutely delicious. We definitely plan to be back for this one as I am sure it must be very good to have been sold out so early in the day.
Lucky for us, Ning, the owner, was there during our visit. She recommended we have the nasi goreng petai, a fried rice dish. Petai means, “smelly beans” in Malay. A popular food in Malaysia, petai is known for its detoxification properties. Petai can be eaten raw or cooked.
I prefer eating mine cooked with sambal because raw petai have a bitter flavor and are more of an acquired taste. Ning’s nasi goreng petai was amazingly good, boasting a variety of delicious flavors. I can honestly say it’s one of the best fried rice dishes I have ever had.
Ning also recommended we try her karedok. As I mentioned before in my “Indonesia Pop-Up Dinner” blog post, I’m not usually a fan of the Asian fruit or vegetable salad back in Malaysia because I find it’s usually too sour for my taste. Ning's vegetable salad, however, was full of flavor and not too sour.
It had just the right amount of graininess, with a lot of delicious peanut sauce that was not too sweet, which is how I like it. Ning explained to us that the salad is made with Thai basil, which is very difficult to find here. Fortunately for her customers, Ning managed to source the hard-to-find herb in Anaheim.
Next came the nasi bungkus. Nasi means rice, while bungkus means, “to pack.” The dish was comprised of rice, several curry dishes, tempeh, and veggies served on a banana leaf. Amazed by how delicious the steamed white rice was, Ning explained that the jasmine rice she used for her nasi bungkus is cooked in a very special way.
In fact, Ning won’t let anyone else cook the rice; she comes into the restaurant every day to cook it herself. The amount of water, how much to stir the rice, the timing - she has it all down to a science, and the result is perfection every time.
The texture of the rice is perfect, sticky, but not your typical Japanese sticky rice, and the rice is just starchy enough to absorb the sauce or gravy. In addition, the fried tempeh, served in an oval shape rather than the usual rectangle, was perfectly seasoned and full of hearty flavor.
Finally, for dessert we had the cendol, a popular cold dessert drink made up of coconut milk, palm sugar, pandan leaf juice, and green jelly-like noodles. Back in Malaysia, cendol is usually served with a lot of shaved ice, but not here, which was a pleasant surprise.
Back home, I usually have to ask them to remove the ice, which often elicits confused expressions from the wait staff. The coconut milk and the palm sugar had just the right amount of sweetness, and I liked the firm green jelly-like noodles used in Ning’s cendol, as the ones used in Malaysia are much softer and break apart easier.
Hands down the cendol at Wong Java house is the best I’ve ever had, and now I know exactly where to go to get my fix!
After our meal, Ning was kind enough to give us a tour of her kitchen where she showed us her secret chili sauces that give her dishes that extra kick. To ensure authenticity and quality, everything at Wong Java House is made from scratch.
Ning also showed us the traditional rice scooper made out of a coconut shell that she uses to make her signature rice. She then proceeded to cook us up some of her delicious fried rice right then and there.
It may have taken us a while to finally make it out to the Wong Java House, but it was well worth the wait. The food was not only very authentic but also fantastically good, and that I was lucky enough to meet Ning while we were there just made the experience all the more unforgettable.
There is no doubt about it; we will be back there again for sure… especially to try that rendang and for more of that delicious cendol.