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Sambal Pleasures

January 13, 1994|JONATHAN GOLD

Central Palms is that part of Los Angeles sometimes called the entry-level Westside, a congeries of sleepy streets that is home to dance companies, and inexpensive ethnic restaurants, and low-rise apartment blocks that house what seems like half the recent graduates of UCLA. Though much of Palms was rebuilt in the waning days of the '80s real-estate boom, parts near the core still have the dusty small-town feel, the tall old-growth trees, of the time when this neighborhood was more or less countryside.

Indo Cafe is a tidy storefront restaurant in that part of the Palms district where the main streets twist in the most confusing way; it's next door to a Mexican joint that specializes in "Pregnant Burritos" and a toss of a betel nut from a decent pizza place, a bohemian-gourmet cafe, a rathskeller and the best-known Sichuan restaurant in this part of town.

It's soothing in the Indo Cafe, all gleaming surfaces and neatly mounted photographs of Indonesian village life, folded linen napkins, bright Indonesian plates and full-course $7.95 dinner specials. The Indonesian cooking, sort of an intelligently gentrified, Muslim-accented greatest-hits version of pan-Indonesian cuisine, is hands down the best on the entire Westside, even if it may be modified a little too much to the Western taste.

Ayam balado , for example, a crisply fried chicken dish from the north coast of Sumatra, is served here under a mildly spiced red bell pepper puree where its traditional garnish is a blistering-hot puree of hot peppers; here dengdeng balado , a dish in which dried beef is often frizzled to something resembling a Pringle, is chewy and pleasant. Fried whole fish is seasoned with enough fermented shrimp paste to set off the flavor of the flesh, yet not enough to startle. The sayur lodeh , cabbage and long beans and such cooked down in turmeric-stained coconut milk, is as gentle a vegetable curry as you'll find. Indo Cafe is a user-friendly restaurant.

Tamarind soup is hotly spiced, tart and luscious, filled with bits of squash, Chinese long beans, and sliced corn cobs, an intricate bowl of broth; mellow Javanese-style chicken soup is slightly soured with lemon grass, thick with slippery glass noodles, garnished with handfuls of musky-tasting toasted betel-nut chips. Martabak telur , a scramble of meat, eggs and herbs folded into something like filo dough and fried, is a terrific sort of Indonesian borek , an exotically spiced version of something you'd expect to find at a North African restaurant.

Indo Cafe may be the only Southland restaurant to serve the fried, stuffed mashed-potato fritter called perkedel , crisp-edged and fine, that is pretty good on its own, but which almost explodes with flavor when you daub it with a bit of one of Indo Cafe's fiery chile condiments: the standard chile-hot sambal olek , plus a dusky, pungent sambal made with fermented shrimp and an unusual sambal scented with rose water. The beef-stuffed squid dish cumi isi is powerfully seasoned with the fermented shrimp paste but is still oddly compelling. Occasionally there is coconut-rich yellow rice, like an Indian biriani , topped with perkedel , a piece of the chile-fried chicken and a chunk of the coconut-stewed beef rendang : a delicious plate of food. The similar nasi rames combination plate over regular rice is pretty good too.

And if the sauteed bakmi noodles are sometimes bland, the gado-gado salad oversauced, Indo Cafe, like Kuala Lumpur, is one of those few Western-oriented Asian restaurants that manages to be accessible and still deliver the goods.

* Indo Cafe

10824 1/2 W. National Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 815-1290. Open daily, 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. No alcohol. Street parking. Takeout and delivery. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $16-$22.

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