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Ayam, I Said

March 18, 1993|JONATHAN GOLD

Among my correspondents is a Dutch guy named Johann, an enthusiast of Indonesian food who has been known to call before 7 a.m. when he is excited about a dish he had the night before. When I run into Johann at a local Indonesian restaurant, which happens more often than you might expect, he will wink conspiratorially and pretend he doesn't notice me, though I know he later points me out to the proprietor. I sometimes suspect he would sell his soul for an extra helping of the right ayam goreng . Johann can wax as profound about a dish of avocado/jackfruit ice as Craig Claiborne ever did about an order of quenelles en brochette.

Perhaps it is a genuine symbiosis, perhaps it is the experience of fighting together against the Japanese in World War II, perhaps it's the food, but there seems to be no closer relationship between a people and their former colonizers than there is between the Indonesians and the Dutch, whose cultures in the Southland are sometimes almost indistinguishable.

Local Dutch grocery stores stock as many Indonesian spices as they do Dutch cheeses, and books from Amsterdam sit side by side with those from Jakarta. To judge from market shelves, Dutch emigrants have a nostalgia for fiery curries, Indonesians for Dutch spice cakes and licorice pastilles. In Southland Indonesian restaurants, you are as likely to see large, inter-generational Dutch families as Indonesian ones.

Johann is particularly excited about an Artesia restaurant called Susie's Deli.

"It is quite authentic," he says. "I am always meeting old friends that I haven't seen since we were in prison camp together."

He always urges me to call ahead and ask if they're serving ayam pangang klaten , an occasional weekend special involving fried chicken, coconut milk and ground Indonesian nuts. I always do: They never are.

Susie's Deli is the usual family-run mini-mall sort of place, a few shelves of Dutch-Indonesian groceries, batik on the walls, a junior-high student reluctantly pressed into service, a deli counter filled with shrimp chips and ultra-sweet Indonesian desserts.

There are all the exotic Indonesian ice drinks you might expect, flavored with jackfruit and rosewater and bright-green mungbean squiggles, including at least one drink, es campur , that looks like the mysterious substance in a jar that occupied the attention of an entire Twilight Zone episode.

The menu is dominated by the Indonesian standbys: lamb satay, peanut-y gado-gado salad, fried rice and fried noodles. The bakmi goreng noodles are nicely smoky and the insanely spicy fried rice, nasi goreng , may be among the best in town.

Empek-empek palembang , essentially a fried, egg-stuffed empanada made with house-pounded fishcake in place of a crust, is served in slices, sauced with a thin, sweet soy broth and garnished with noodles and diced cucumber. Tahu bakso kuha involves forcemeat-stuffed tofu and a gently spiced broth. Bandeng presto is made from a bony fish marinated and pressed under a weight until the bones dissolve, then fried to an unusually savory crisp.

But the Susie's Deli experience revolves around the weekly chalkboard specials, things like potato-chip-crunchy fried shrimp; fried fish in a bright-red chile sauce; spicy fried chicken wings; a yellow-rice version of the usual nasi rames combination plate garnished with stewed beef, toasted coconut, some chicken curry and a chilied hard-cooked egg. Or, of course, the ayam pangang klaten .

"Please?" I ask. "Please, do you have the ayam pangang klaten today?"

"We don't," the waitress says, "but you may like this other one even better."

A few minutes later, she brings out a dish of fried chicken flavored with a tart, curried vegetable julienne that tastes like some brilliant post-modernist's deconstruction of a jar of picallilli. I don't know whether it's better than the ayam pangang klaten --I suspect that I will never know--but I suspect that Johann would have approved.

Susie's Deli

12238 Artesia Blvd., Artesia, (310) 860-7272. Open Wednesday through Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Cash only. No alcohol. Takeout. Lot parking. Dinner for two, food only, $11 to $18.

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