A hot time in the old town

There comes a time in the life of all Sacramento residents when they must venture to Old Sacramento. Perhaps the in-laws are in town; perhaps friends are visiting; perhaps the kids have heard about this wonderland from their friends and whined so persistently for ersatz saltwater taffy, multiple flavors of popcorn, and souvenir tchotchkes that they can no longer be denied. Or, maybe it’s just time for a visit to the California State Railroad Museum, which, in all fairness, does merit a trip. In any case, someday you’ll find yourself in Old Sacramento—probably on the warmest afternoon of the summer, with the heat beating up off those rough plank sidewalks. You’re broke; you’re tired; your blood sugar is crashing. And so the question presents itself: Where are you going to get something interesting, cheap and tasty to eat? Here’s a hint: It won’t be at the many chain restaurants in the area.

Without even moving the car, you can find delicious salvation at Indo Café. This tiny hole in the wall is the very antithesis of a tourist trap. There, you’ll find traditional Indonesian dishes, from accessible satays to more adventurous choices, made by owner Loeky Ong. (His wife takes the orders.) There are outdoor tables where you can sit in the shade and watch the tame-sounding locomotive chug by, with a view of the Tower Bridge.

Pictures of the food are helpful when you’re trying to choose dishes that might be unfamiliar. On our visit, we stuck to fairly basic picks like bakmi goreng (a stir-fried noodle dish) and gado-gado (a classic vegetable, tofu and egg salad with peanut sauce). Unusual, authentic dishes are listed—without an English explanation—on a separate menu labeled “masakan Indonesia.” Next time, we’ll ask for guidance and explore those offerings, which include tahu telor and gulai kambing.

For an appetizer, we tried the rissole, which I found endearingly peculiar. It’s a soft, slightly doughy wrapper enclosing a creamy chicken filling. The whole thing was coated in crunchy crumbs that tasted sweetly of nutmeg. It was a little like the lovechild of chicken à la king and bread pudding—possibly not for everyone, but I liked it. It came with yummy peanut sauce, which I ended up eating with my fork when I had finished the rissole. Peanut sauces abound in Southeast Asian cooking, but this one—spicy and sweet, but with chunks of actual peanuts and a strong roasted-peanut flavor—was a standout of its kind.

The peanut sauce would be good on nearly anything, but it was very good indeed on the gado-gado. It contrasted deliciously with the crisp vegetables and the coolly bland tofu, as well as the savory, fishy, foamy shrimp chips scattered over the top of the dish. It’s the perfect lunch or dinner for the heat of summer. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, because Indonesia is even hotter than Sacramento, as torturous as such a thing may sound.

The bakmi goreng was a hot dish, but it was also good and filled with contrasting textures: thin egg noodles, pieces of celery and other vegetables, fried garlic, and bits of chicken. (It’s available with beef and shrimp, as well.) It was salty with soy sauce and a little too oily, but it was still tasty. I stirred in a little of the completely incendiary hot sauce. The orangey red sauce came in a little tub, and its searing heat and flavor persisted for a good two minutes after each bite. If, by chance, you feel the nascent stirrings of a summer cold, come to Indo Café and take a bite of this stuff. It should kill off anything that threatens to ail you.

To quell the heat, there are a few rich, sweet drinks on the menu. The Thai iced tea was not a standout. It was weak, dull and not cold enough to be refreshing. But I’d definitely recommend the ice cincau. It was a layered, otherworldly concoction of coconut, brown sugar and grass jelly—shocking green squiggles you can slurp up with a straw or a spoon. I’ve been known to eat lumps of brown sugar straight from the box when I have a sweets craving and there’s nothing else in the house, so I loved the brown-sugar flavor. The grass jelly, whose only connection to actual grass seems to be its color, ought to delight the heart of any kid.

Plenty of the other dishes seemed equally kid-friendly, such as satay and the rice and noodle dishes, making Indo Café a good spot for the whole gang. With super-low prices and a menu offering something to please everyone, from timid eaters to intrepid culinary adventurers, Indo Café is just the right antidote to a day of playing tourist in your own town.