4611 E Burnside St., 503-206-5916, wajanpdx.com. 5-9 pm Wednesday-Monday.
"Selamat Makan," reads the sign in the dining room at Wajan, an Indonesian newcomer to Portland's kaleidoscopic restaurant scene. The phrase translates to "bon appétit"—or, in rough English, "good eating." It turns out the sign isn't really necessary. The truth of that statement is self-evident.
Once seated in the casual but flamboyantly decorated dining room—the colorful table coverings are augmented by two murals, one depicting a Jakarta street scene, another vividly illustrating Javanese hand puppetry—diners can choose from a diverse palette of snacks, mains, sides and the piquant relishes known collectively as sambals.
For the uninitiated, an order of nasi campur ($13) or nasi uduk ($14) is a must. Each is a sampler that surrounds a mound of rice ("nasi") with a variety of tastes. The base campur, for example, which is mildly spiced and can be served vegan, adds a pile of flavor-packed cubes of tempeh, grated coconut, a couple of wedges of curried jackfruit with the texture of artichoke heart and a showy rice cracker. There's also a deep-fried hard-boiled egg and green beans with chili sauce. Optional meaty additions to both combo plates include beef rendang ($4.50), an Indonesian "dry" curry staple, which is braised low and slow with coconut milk and spices such as turmeric, galangal, ginger, garlic, lemongrass and chiles until the braising liquid is more like a dark cocoa-colored paste and the flavors have permeated the fork tender meat. Excellent, deeply flavorful pork, babi kentang ($3.50), is also recommended.
Those ready for the advanced course have plenty of options. For a dish rarely seen outside its native South and Southeast Asian environs, a starter of rujak serut ($7.50) should be mandatory. Raw fruits and vegetables—pineapple, jackfruit, cuke slices and more—are anointed with palm sugar syrup and ground peanuts for an all-compass-point ensemble of sweet, tart, soft and crunchy. Up the ante and make it spicy by tossing finely chopped red chili into the mixture, which becomes four-dimensional. It's one of my favorite local dishes of the year.
Also worth seeking out is a mildly spiced mix of peanuts and dried bits of anchovy called teri kacang ($3.50) and super-crunchy murtabak telor ($5)—paper-thin mini pancakes stuffed with a little shallot and green onion, folded into a multilayered packet, deep-fried and generously salted. It looks oily, but goes down clean. In the main dish section, veer toward the turmeric-forward coconut milk green curry ($12), which is chockfull of goodies and comes with rice.
Like many operators serving heritage foods, Wajan owner and chef Feny Lim exercises restraint in the spicing of her family recipes, but her sambals are the missing link. These can alter the trajectory of a Wajan meal from simply distinctive and delicious to a pyrotechnic display of chile-embellished intensity. Order and experiment with all three ($1.50 each)—just remember that a little goes a long way.
Selamat makan, my friends. MICHAEL C. ZUSMAN.
1801 NE César E. Chávez Blvd., 503-206-8778, gadogadopdx.com. 5-10 pm Monday and Wednesday-Friday; 10 am-1 pm and 5-10 pm Saturday-Sunday.
Considering the preponderance of both Indian and Thai food in Portland, it feels like the arrival of the next big food trend from Southeast Asia has been long overdue—and the brick-and-mortar home of wildly popular pop-up Gado Gado makes a strong case that Indonesian cuisine is the next big thing.
At the pop-up, head chef Thomas Pisha-Duffly and his wife, Mariah, employed the chops they acquired at Han Oak and Tusk, respectively, to sell heady mashups of thick noodles, vibrant sauces and hearty proteins. Few of the ephemeral favorites of Gado Gado's past life have made it to the colorful and kitschy new restaurant space, which the duo rehabbed by decking the walls in mismatched antiques, pink and blue wallpaper adorned with crustaceans, and a painting of Oma, Thomas' grandmother, the source of inspiration in the kitchen. But that doesn't mean their flair for radiant spice and dazzling displays of complementary textures has been dialed back—they've just taken a new shape.
The dish perhaps most emblematic of the change is the beef rendang ($22), a simmering heap of coconut-braised beef paired with Oma's aromatic rice and a side of sambal, a zesty, salsalike accoutrement mandatory at many Indonesian tables. Korea gets most of the stateside hype for its beloved spin on barbecue, but it wouldn't be surprising to see a dish like this emerge as a new favorite in its wake. It's a simple dish that's packed with flavor and damn-near perfect.
A welcome addition to the menu is a plate of Chinese sausage and shrimp dumplings ($14), which are a likely throwback to Thomas' days in the kitchen of Han Oak. The explosion of umami flavor from the pungent coating of black vinegar creates a showstopping foil to the tender filling of the dumplings, and you'd be remiss to skip them on account of the explosion of dumpling dishes in town.
The menu is rounded out by a section of protein-forward plates that offer unorthodox takes on otherwise straightforward fine dining staples. The Coca-Cola clams ($20) recall the playful treatment of rare ingredients at the pop-up, and the half-pound of Oregon crawfish ($20) comes slathered in enough chile paste and Old Bay-infused butter to give a blue-blooded East Coaster serious pause. There's even an entire wok-fried Dungeness crab for $60, which comes dressed with thick noodle rolls, cheung fun rice and a rich egg yolk butter sauce.
Wash it down with an aptly named Luxury Item (gin, amaro, cherry, coconut puree, lime and nutmeg; $10) and the charmed life of an island-hopping jet setter with money to burn is yours for just a fleeting moment. A great deal of the thrill inherent in international travel is derived from one's ability to go with the flow, and you'll be rewarded greatly at Gado Gado for having faith in the unfamiliar. That'll probably be at least half of the menu, and in this case that means the opportunities for culinary adventure are as plentiful as ever. PETE COTTELL.