The air of authenticity, as I often think of it, comes tinged with grease, sequestered in zero-frills storefronts, and filled with the sounds of a language not my own. And these places—often affectionately called holes-in-walls, often catering to customers who hail from the same country as the cuisine—will always be the cherished spots of adventurous and savvy diners.
But there is another, less appreciated, kind of authenticity for the so-called ethnic restaurant. It's more about translating a cuisine and ambiance with an eye to the uninitiated, and thus spreading it as far as it will go. It's hard to do without compromising flavor, but I think Rickshaw Republic successfully occupies that latter camp. Opened last year by the Setiawan clan—mother Elice, father Tommy, and sons Emil and Oscar—the kitschy dine-in BYOB focuses on Indonesian street food. If you have never been to this 17,500-island archipelago, Rickshaw Republic is ready to show you its culinary riches.
One way to go is the family-style Rice Table ($36 per person), a comprehensive 10-dish feast. Each of the courses basically falls into one of three categories: spicy snacks, carbs, and rich braised meat dishes.
Starting things off was a basket of krupuk, puffed starch crackers light as air. On the side, the house sambal could be compared to Korean gochujang. The thick chili paste is ubiquitous in Indonesian cooking, with a sweet start and a spicy finish that only seems to grow until you go back for more.
That fiery first course was followed by a plate of gorgeous golden fritters called bala bala. Beneath that crispy crust lies a steaming interior of bean sprouts, cabbage, and carrot, a mild comfort food for dipping into sweet vinegar soy sauce. This was a highlight of the meal, though tempting to fill up on early.
So too with the mie goreng, a classic street hawker's fried egg noodle dish, sweet and spicy and topped with crispy shallots, cabbage, and bits of chicken, egg, and beef.
Other small bites of note included aromatic cabbage with grated coconut and green onion (urap).
Also al dente green beans laced with sambal (sambal goring buncis). I didn't love the kering tempeh on first bite—the fermented soybean bits are flavorful, but could have used a glaze to manage the dryness—but even they wound up being sort of irresistible, in the way some bar snacks tend to be.
The opar ayam with chicken thigh and pineapple has a satisfyingly familiar taste for fans of coconut curry, which I am.
But the babi kecap is worth talking about in detail. These perfectly tender hunks of pork belly are served in a pool of their own dark, rich, anise-scented soy sauce. That soy sauce is unique to Indonesia, by the way, a thick, palm sugar-sweetened brew called kecap manis. As I spooned it over my rice (nasi putih), Oscar Setiawan briefed me on the Dutch colonization of his native country and inevitable culinary transfer thereafter, informing me that this popular dish would be as easy to find in Holland as in Indonesia today.
Although dessert seemed absolutely impossible at the end of all of this, the ketan hitam is irresistible. It's thinner than pudding, with black rice suspended in the palm-sugared liquid the way blackberry seeds do in a runny jam. The salted coconut cream sitting on top gives it balance and richness, without so much decadence that you couldn't have the chilled leftovers for breakfast the next day—highly recommended.
Throughout the meal, Oscar and other friendly staff members who happened by answered my questions in detail, their passion evident. (I'm not the only one to notice; apparently The Chicago Reader's Mike Sula got a geography lesson.) Indonesian fare is a needed presence within a sparse area of Chicago's dining scene, and Rickshaw Republic is the perfect primer for this unfamiliar cuisine.