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Gado-Gado Go

December 20, 1990|JONATHAN GOLD

The groovy City-Angeli-Campanile circuit has been thoroughly discussed, but the over-educated misfits who frequent East Hollywood's ethnic-restaurant scene have their well-known favorites too: Zankou for chicken, Sanamaluang for Thai noodles, Marouch for hommos , grilled quail and fattouch. For cafe con leche , there's Tropical Ice Cream; for Weiss beer and wurst, the Red Lion. And Agung near Downtown has become the one place to go when you want avocado in your coffee.

Agung is a tidy, cinder-block Indonesian restaurant in an untidy neighborhood, a soothing world of spicy curries and continuous soft hits squeezed between a medical building and a lube pit a block or two south of the Hollywood Freeway. It's a tiny, family-run place, decorated with travel posters and batik, where the daughter waits tables and the Sumatra-born mom runs the kitchen. The customers seem to be mostly Indonesian students from U.S.C. and Indonesian-speaking Dutch guys involved in international trade. Phil Collins and Neil Diamond tunes play nonstop on the restaurant's radio.

The area is the kind that all those articles on the Pacific Rim are always going on about. The local Vons caters to two-dozen different ethnic groups; authentic restaurants of 14 countries lie within five minutes walk. (There was even an Italian-Filipino restaurant around here for a while--its real-life motto was "FilItalian food: stranger than fiction.") Since I moved to the vicinity several years ago, I suppose I've had lunch at Agung about twice a month, which is to say a little more often than anyplace else. I always have avocado in my coffee.

Iced coffee and the creamy fruit go pretty well together, especially when blended into the fluffy consistency of a malted: coffee brings out a sweet richness in the avocado that isn't apparent when avocado is used as a vegetable. If Tuscan peasants had stumbled across the combination, people would be lining up outside Melrose coffeehouses to drink the stuff from little cups. Agung is famous for its other beverages too, a weird, Bordeaux-colored drink called es cincau that tastes a little like jellied Robitusson, a rosewater-scented drink called es kelapa mundi that's spiked with gelatinous shreds of baby coconut. Everybody seems to like the sweet, cool drink that's made with coconut, jackfruit and avocado.

Agung has all the stuff that you suppose would be standard if Indonesian food were as common as Thai: good, clumpy fried rice with scallions and ham; delicious bakmi noodles, a sort of spicy Indonesian chow mein, fried with dark soy, shrimp and plenty of cabbage; the chicken soup soto ayam , thick with fresh vegetables and fragrant with spice; the crisp lettuce salad called gado-gado , dressed with chile-spiked peanut butter and sprinkled with crushed shrimp chips. There's decent satay, sweeter than the Thai kind, of grilled chicken, pork and lamb, and there's an unusual Sumatra-style satay where the chunks of grilled tongue have been stewed first, then served with a pasty Indonesian veloute. The turmeric-stained lamb stew is fine, if a little ordinary.

Order something called fishcake, not something you'd ordinarily be inclined to do, and you'll get what is essentially a crusty turnover of house-pounded fishcake, stuffed with egg, steamed and fried. It comes cut into peppery, rubbery chunks, served in a bowl with glass noodles and diced cucumber, floating in a soy broth. It's the sort of thing Japanese kaiseki restaurants are always trying to do but never quite get right. Or try lontong , rice cake cooked with mixed meats in a coconut broth, or telur belado , a big tofu patty battered and fried, then doused with sweet, dark soy. Agung is especially good at Sumatran specialties.

But the best way to eat at Agung may be to order several items from what they call "rice table combination" part of the menu, tapas-size portions of things like crispy fried chicken in a vivid fresh chile sauce, curried beef, chilied hard-boiled egg or Sumatra-style curry-roasted beef, served with a big plate of rice, that cost about a buck and a half apiece. Don't miss the smoky dendeng belado , sliced beef fried until it reaches the size, shape and crunchiness of a Pringle, with a searing chile dip. It goes pretty well with avocado and coffee.

Agung, 3909 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 660-2113. Open Monday-Saturday, noon to 8:30 p.m. Cash only. No alcohol. Dinner for two, food only, $18-$30.

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