Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Nasi Bungkus Roundup: 5 Banana-leaf Wraps, 60 miles.

It all started with a line in Jonathan Gold's LA Weekly article on Indo Cafe. In the last paragraph, he wrote:

But you could probably scour every Indonesian restaurant in California without finding another nasi bungkus, a sort of TV dinner of sautéed green beans, beef rend[a]ng and curried chicken wrapped with rice and a fiery green chile paste inside a banana leaf. (The leaf’s green fragrance works its way into the rice even in the few minutes it will be in front of you in the restaurant but is heaven itself unwrapped for lunch the next day.)
A marvelous description, to be sure, yet that opening line bugged me. I remembered Linda Burum's LA Times article about that same dish - at Java Spice in Rowland Heights. Granted theirs is only available on Saturdays and Sundays. But what about the restaurant just across the street from Indo Cafe, Simpang Asia? I was pretty sure they had nasi bungkus.

In the end, I decided to do a round-up. Yep, a nasi bungkus round-up. Because if you do scour - forget California, let's just focus on LA County - you can find other nasi bungkus.

First thing's first. What in the world is nasi bungkus?
The name itself just translates to "wrapped rice" and the dish is just that. Rice wrapped in banana leaf along with whatever lauk - meat, vegetables, or other accompaniments you'd want to put in. It really refers more to the packaging and a way of getting some food to-go than what is inside and is as ubiquitous in Indonesia as bento boxes are in Japan.
While the idea was that the banana leaf (natural and ubiquitous) will hold the oil, moisutre, and sauces in, it certainly didn't hurt that its fragrances seeps into the warm rice.

These days and in LA in particular though, certain staple items are expected to be found inside. An egg. Some beef rendang. Some sort of chicken, and of course some sort of vegetable medley.

I started my acquisitions with the easiest and closest:

Simpang Asia
10433 National Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90034

I ordered a nasi bungkus to go (because that's what nasi bungkus was meant to be in the first place). They wrapped the rice and further put it in a styrofoam box - a little redundant? - with a side of shrimp chips.
In this nasi bungkus ($6.99) they put white rice, chicken, beef rendang, vegetable curry (lodeh), potatoes with chicken gizzard, Balinese egg.
Their chicken was surprisingly tender, but unfortunately the rendang wasn't as tender as it could've been. My favorite part was the morsels of delicious chicken gizzard chunks. The lodeh was also flavorful without being too spicy. Since lodeh is a coconut-based vegetable curry, it adds a richness to the dish and the part of the rice that has soaked up this curry sauce was incredibly delicious. The rice itself is for the most part fragrant after having been wrapped inside the banana leaf.

Next was the restaurant across the street that J Gold had visited:

Indo Cafe
10430 National Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90034-4664


Indo Cafe's nasi bungkus contained white rice, beef rendang, green beans, hard boiled egg, chicken curry, tofu/tempeh curry.
This was served with a dollop of green chile, which is traditionally from the Padang region in Sumatra. The rice did receive some fragrance from the banana leaf, but it wasn't as moist as Simpang Asia's. The beef rendang was more tender, however, and more than makes up for it. Surprisingly, my favorite part of the dish was the curried tofu and tempeh. The tempeh here was one of the better ones in the city, chewier and not as dry as others.

Java Spice
1743 Fullerton Road
Rowland Heights, CA 91748-2614
Java Spice on Urbanspoon

At one point I managed to enlist Wandering Chopsticks and Sinosoul and dragged them all the way to Rowland Heights for the LA Times-mentioned nasi bungkus at Java Spice.

Since it received such a great write-up and is only available on the weekends, Java Spice was packed on a Saturday night and service was painfully slow.

All that aside, let's focus on the dish we came for.
Inside: rice, marinated fried chicken (ayam kalasan), tofu, tempeh, telur kecap (egg boiled in soy sauce), and of course, beef rendang, jackfruit curry.
The rice was particularly fragrant and brought this dish to a whole new level. It was much more fragrant and rich I was suspecting that it might've been coconut rice, but it might've just been the results of the curry and sauces seeping through. The ayam kalasan was disappointing as it was too sweet, a little tough and didn't really go with the rest of the dish (so I thought - chicken curry in my nasi bungkus please). Putting the chicken aside, everything else was great. The rendang was very tender and so was the jackfruit curry - usually a rare sight unless you're eating nasi gudeg.

They also serve this with a side of green chili, which was also particularly good. Sinosoul had to ask for more chili even if he had to face the possibility of them spitting in it (we've been giving them a hard time for their service ...)

I thought I was almost done but just to check I called other Indonesian places that I knew and found yet another one that serves nasi bungkus!

Sate House
812 Nogales Avenue
Walnut, CA 91789-4170
Sate House on Urbanspoon

Like Java Spice, the nasi bungkus at Sate House is also only available on Saturdays and Sundays. I had to make this trek twice because the first Saturday I went they had already run out. I was on a mission, however, and thus made the 23 mile drive again the next weekend.

A little different this time. The beef rendang was there, with fried chicken and egg, but the green beans with tofu and tempeh were not curried but just boiled, and the whole thing was topped with some stir fried vermicelli.
I'm sure you all understand why everything is piled on top of the rice right? So that their sauces and juices will trickle down and douse the rice moist with spicy, flavorful sauce ...
Probably the least spicy of the five, I enjoyed this one quite a bit with the fork-tender beef and moist and tender chicken. The vermicelli was quite a nice touch as well, adding another dimension of texture.

I saved the furthest restaurant for last but finally made my way down to the 562 area, Bellflower.

Toko Rame
17155 Bellflower Blvd
Bellflower, CA 90706
Toko Rame on Urbanspoon
Toko Rame in Los Angeles

The nasi bungkus from Toko Rame had gotten a write-up a few years ago from Elmo Monster, a fellow foodblogger from Indonesia whom I unfortunately have not met.

Upon picking up my order I immediately thought "Wow, this is the heaviest one yet!" and upon opening it and seeing the red pile of rice, thought "Uh oh, this is gonna be the spiciest one .."
White rice topped with egg balado, beef rendang, fried chicken drumstick, lodeh (vegetable curry)
I sat a big bottle of water next to me and I was ready. Some people complain that the beef rendang found in this part of the world is just not as spicy as back home. Well, Toko Rame's is still not as spicy but it sure does pack a heat. The beef was earthy and tender, the chicken a little dry but had a nice turmeric flavor. The boiled cabbage on top was contrastingly unspiced which helped me tone down the spiciness but on the other hand could be detracting.

Toko Rame already mixed the rice with the chili paste for you, you see, instead of putting a dollop in a corner. The end result is an amazingly spicy and flavorful rice that you won't be able to stop eating even after you've finished all the meat and vegetables. If you can't, don't worry, just rewrap the rice for the next day... back in the banana leaf, of course.

11 comments:

Wandering Chopsticks

Great roundup. Glad I was able to join you in one of them. None of the West Covina Indonesian restaurants serve nasi bungkus? What about the one in La Verne?

Although, I think this is #4 of factual errors and/or uninformed statements I've caught?

burumun

the one in La Verne didn't have it I think .. I don't think I've called up every Indonesian restaurants in West Covina - in fact I think I just found another one. Man, I have to do a revision! :P

elmomonster

OH MAN! A nasi bungkus roundup! Awesome! Excellent. Had no idea about the others, but I'm furiously finicky about travelling outside of OC unless I have a good reason. This might just be it.

And what a coincidence. I just had nasi bungkus a week ago at Toko Rame too. I wonder if you were there at the same time I was?

People's Court was on the TV and it was some chick who was yapping about how her mortgage was upside down...really an unpleasant dining soundtrack. Good thing the nasi bungkus was perfect.

BTW, I've also seen nasi bungkus at Pondok Kaki Lima.

burumun

Elmomonster: Haha on the other hand I'm finicky about traveling INTO OC :P
I was at Toko Rame on Saturday but pretty early, I don't think you were there, there was just a couple eating. I'd love to meet you tho.

And you're right, I should definitely include PKL in here. I should go there and revise this list.

nakedsushi

Great round-up. Nasi bungkus is one of my favorite Indonesian dishes but I'm ashamed to say I've only tried it at Simpang Asia and Java Spice.

Maybe they were having an off day or maybe I'm just partial to Simpang Asia, but the version at Simpang Asia was way better. Java's was too bland and the meat had an 'off' taste when I had it.

I've been consistently pleased with Simpang Asia's, especially the gizards. They're like little treasures buried in the rice. Yum. Now I'm craving it and thinking about going for lunch tomorrow.

weezermonkey

So great! Kudos to your dedication!

Exile Kiss

Hi burumun,

Nice roundup; thanks for the thoughts on all of these places. :) If I may ask:

1. Does Nasi Bungkus ever come with Pork? I noticed that all 5 places you tried here in L.A. had Beef and Chicken only.

2. Is Nasi Bungkus always spicy? I remember trying this once and it was pretty spicy (I was unprepared). :)

Thanks!

burumun

Thanks Exile Kiss!

So as for #1: Indonesia is now a Muslim country so traditional dishes like nasi bungkus - with the exception of ones from certain regions - would not come w pork. They'll be "halal" in other words.

They're also not always spicy although the beef rendang portion tends to be. They usually come with a dollop of chili paste on the side/corner so just be wary about accidentally mixing that in ;)

SinoSoul

This is kinda epic. Glad you made it down to the (562)! Cuz that SEEMS to have been the best, yes?

burumun

thanks! And thanks for going to Java Spice w me.
and yes, I think Toko Rame's is the best after all, tho Java Spice's was pretty darn good too. Too bad they're both far.

Léon Moch

Toko Rame's nasi bungkus looks lovely with all the spicy sauces absorbed by the rice.

As for the question on whether there is nasi bungkus with pork, you can find nasi bungkus babi guling in Bali, which is overwhelmingly Hindu.

Cheers,
Léon

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