An Indonesianfriend of a friend finally got me to Borobudur, a 13-year-old Indonesian restaurant on Post Street, where I immediately fell in love with the food — the fragrant spices, the surprising combinations, the sparkle of the cooking. I never would have tried the restaurant without him, yet after the first dish I knew that anyone could walk in cold, point to any item on the menu, and get something delicious.
Indonesia is a vast nation of islands in the Pacific located between Australia and Southeast Asia. Its cooking represents the ultimate fusion — a rollercoaster of aromas, flavors and textures — incorporating spice-laden coconut milk curries from India, stir-fries, soy sauce, tofu and vegetables from China and kebab-like satays and goat from the Middle East.
All of these are uniquely transformed by Indonesian devotion to shrimp paste, peanuts, chiles, tamarind, palm vinegar, palm sugar, lemongrass, sweet spices and aromatic leaves. The culinary collage is further deepened by regional preferences within the nation of islands. Each dish offers a journey with a different itinerary.
Start your culinary travels with one of Borobudur's astonishing roti prata ($6.50), a soft, griddled bread of many delicate layers, some crisp, some chewy, eaten by pulling off pieces with your right hand and dunking them into a thin coconut milk curry. They're the best I've had. Now, whenever I pass the corner, I debate whether to stop. They've become an obsession.
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A meal wouldn't be complete without Borobudur's superb gado-gado ($7.50), a warm salad of steamed vegetables and tofu in a luscious mild peanut sauce that's rich and nuanced. A topping of shrimp crackers and bitternut crackers (which are nutty, not bitter) adds amusing crunch.
No less than five generous skewers of succulent chicken sate ($8.50) come with yet another expressive peanut sauce, but why not try something different, like oseng-oseng tahu tempe ($8.75), a marvelous vegetarian dish of meaty pressed soy bean cake and tofu in a scintillating sweet and sour sauce spiked with chili.
Ask if calamari, cumi redos salera, ($11.95) is available. You'll get tender, scored bodies in a subtly sweet-and-sour red chili sauce that is buttery, nutty and scattered with crisp deep fried shallots — a marvelous dish.
Borobudur's rendang ($11.50), braised beef in a red coconut milk sauce, a classic dish from the spice growing island of Sumatra, inebriates with the scent of clove and nutmeg. In empal goreng ($11.50), fried honey beef, the spices are dry rubbed into hunks of pot roast and cook into the meat, leaving a fragrant crust.
The rendang is divine with lemongrass-scented coconut rice, nasi uduk, ($2.95) which is so good I could eat a whole bowl by itself.
For a drink, try es kalapa muda ($4.25), young coconut water, barely sweetened and combined with slippery ribbons of young coconut and ice in a tall soda glass.
The Indonesian couple behind this vibrant cooking, Soe Bin Ang and Yunita Gouw, started out by catering from their home kitchen as students at San Francisco State University. Now they have an established restaurant with cheerful yellow walls and soft lighting from fixtures handcrafted by chef Ang himself. A large Balinese woodcarving of a scene from the Ramayana presides over the room, and votives twinkle on the tables.
When you pass Borobudur in the evening, the dining room glows. For me, this treasure was hidden in plain sight.
Location: 700 Post St., San Francisco
Contact: (415) 775-1512 or www.borobudursf.com
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily
Price range: $3.50 to $11.50
Recommended dishes: Roti prata, fried fish cake in spicy vinegar sauce, coconut rice, chicken sate, gado-gado, sauteed tempeh, beef rendang Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, Discovery
Patricia Unterman is author of the new “San Francisco Food Lovers Pocket Guide.” Contact her at email@example.com.