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Restaurants | COUNTER INTELLIGENCE: INDONESIA

Crunching through the land of empings

Asian Deli's authentic satays and curries offer Southland residents a rare taste of these islands.

August 13, 2003|Charles Perry | Times Staff Writer

Chomping empings in Diamond Bar, that's what we were doing.

Emping belinjo, made from the seeds of an Indonesian tree, crunches like a potato chip and tastes like popcorn. The staff at Asian Deli had gleefully bet us we couldn't eat just one, and they were winning, despite a slight bitter aftertaste that probably means Americans will never say "all that and a bag of empings." These chips made a fine crisp garnish for asinan, a light, tart salad of cabbage mixed with peanuts, bean sprouts and shreds of cucumber.

You can buy empings by the sack at Asian Deli. Other than that, the place is not a deli but an informal mall storefront restaurant made a little elegant by the Indonesian sculptures and hangings over the booths (and since Indonesia is a chain of islands, many nearer to Australia than to Asia, in a sense Asian Deli isn't Asian, either).

A couple of years ago Asian Deli headed north from an original location in Orange to settle in this sun-beaten strip mall near where the 57 and the 60 freeways diverge. Many residents of the restaurant's new neighborhood may lack the Indonesian taste for chiles, to judge from the anxious way the waitresses ask how hot you want your food. They also tend to steer you toward mild dishes like sindanglaya: chicken fried rice topped with a couple of skewers of chicken satay, a chunk of fried chicken and an egg sunny side up.

Authentic Indonesian restaurants are rare enough in the Southland that people understandably ask for guidance. But all you have to do is read the menu description and imagine a Thai dish with the same ingredients -- the two cuisines are very close and make similar satays, coconut curry sauces and so forth.

The chicken satays (sate ayam) in Asian Deli's sindanglaya happen to be outstanding. Swathed in a sweet smoky glaze , they have the punchy taste of real street food.

The chicken dishes tend to be attractive in a lush way. Chicken in rich coconut milk (opor ayam), grilled chicken lacquered with molasses-sweet Indonesian soy and a sneaky bit of chile (ayam bakar kecap) and chicken sauteed with sweet soy (ayam goreng mantega) are all crowd-pleasers.

Other dishes anybody could like include kredok (cabbage and cucumbers in a slightly sweet, slightly hot peanut sauce) or telor bumbu belado (hard-boiled eggs covered with "spicy Padang sauce" -- basically chopped-up peppers, just mildly hot despite their alarming, bright-red color).

You could start a meal with Indonesian dim sum -- shiumay (steamed chicken dumplings with peanut sauce) or lumpia (spring rolls with a sweet dipping sauce; fairly hot, for once) -- but consider otak-otak instead. It's mild fish paste rolled up in banana leaves and grilled. You squish a cylinder of fish out of the leaf and dip it in a peanut sauce. Or you could start with a soup such as soto ayam: vegetables and chicken in rich chicken broth with a citrus tang, sprinkled with fried shallots.

Asian Deli's version of Rendang sapi is beef braised until crumbly in slightly sweet coconut milk, with a bit more hot pepper than you might expect. Empal ("fried mashed marinated beef") is a couple of thick slices of braised beef that have been fried to give much the same meaty, elusively spicy effect as Thai fried jerky. (Dendeng belado actually is fried beef jerky. Unfortunately, it's fried to a flavorless cinder.)

Seafood gets many of the same treatments as meat -- grilled and covered with red peppers or sweet soy, stewed with curry spices in coconut milk -- but ikan lele (a seasonal dish) is distinctive. The grilled catfish comes with a snappy, unsweetened coconut sauce spiked with chiles. Otherwise, the spiciest thing I've had here has been kalapan, which is sliced tomatoes and steamed vegetables (green beans, bok choy and carrots) with a sauce like some kind of gazpacho that happens to be loaded with red pepper and dried shrimp.

Instead of plain steamed rice you can ask for fragrant yellow rice (nasi kuning), though it's not on the menu. Even more Indonesian is the thickish rice disks called lontong. Despite the translation ("sticky steamed rice"), it's like a delicate pasta.

For dessert, Asian Deli sometimes has a sweet, earthy pudding of black sticky rice (bubur ketan hitam), and you can always get bubur sumsum: a little bowl of sweet-sour caramelized brown sugar swirled with some rice-thickened coconut milk.

Or in this weather, you might want one of the ices, big bowls of ice crystals with flavorings. Say, es belaian pandan, ice mixed with coffee -- and some avocado. After a couple of spoonfuls, it makes sense.

*

Asian Deli

Location: 23545 Palomino Drive, Suite F, Diamond Bar, (909) 861-1427.

Price: Appetizers, $3-$5.25; vegetables, $4-$6.25; main dishes, $3.75-$8.25; desserts, $2-$3.50.

Best dishes: sate ayam, asinan, rendang sapi, pecel lele, bubur sumsum.

Details: Lunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday through Sunday; dinner 3 to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 3 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 to 9 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday. No alcohol. Lot parking. All major credit cards.

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