Earlier this year we told you about a small Indonesian restaurant called Lil Java that opened at 18th and Ritner.
While the restaurant may look unassuming, Craig Laban paid the spot a visit, giving it a very good, two bell review.
The owners of Lil Java had no prior experience running a restaurant and Lil Java wasn’t even their idea. Despite their strange start to opening this cafe, they have managed to create an inexpensive spot for Indonesian food that seems to be worth checking out.
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Almost everything here is homemade, from the four sambal hot sauces to four variations on peanut sauce, and the myriad dumplings that star in some of her best dishes. One new appetizer obsession I’ve never encountered before is martabak telor, which looks like pan-crisped love letters folded around nutmeg-scented ground beef, leeks, and scrambled egg. Fried dumplings made from ground chicken and fish anchor the batagor, a warm tumble of various bite-size textures (steamed potatoes, fried stuffed tofu, hard-boiled eggs) that reminds me vaguely of an Indian chaat salad – but sloshed with tan peanut sauce perked with vinegar. It’s similar to, but also quite different from, Debby’s take on Indonesia’s famous gado-gado salad, which is vegetarian, with pressed rice cakes, potatoes, and garlic crackers, and whose peanut sauce, already swirling with tangy tamarind and hot red chilies, gets an extra East Java-style dose of creamy coconut milk.
Her simple take on more familiar wontons, whose plump pork fillings are edged with dried shrimp and sweet oyster sauce, is completely irresistible. They come either simply fried as an appetizer with spicy sweet dipping sauce, or dunked into the rich chicken-pork broth of bakwan campur soup (both fried and soft-poached) along with a medley of other dumplings, including tofu chunks stuffed with seasoned ground pork and open-top sui-mei, whose meat fillings are flecked with grated sweet carrot. Only the bouncy meatballs were unimpressive – and they turn out to be the only ones Debby doesn’t make. But when we added a spoonful of crimson red sambal, it was as though the broth suddenly glowed with warm sunshine.
Laban said that he came with a “bucket of assumptions to Lil’ Java – and virtually all of them were wrong.” So if you’re looking to try some good Indonesian food on the cheap, this may be just the place.
Lil Java offer eat-in, take-out and delivery. You can find them on Facebook here.