Indonesian food has long ranked among the top ethnic cuisines surprisingly unrepresented in Chicago; the occasional small restaurant has popped up (and then disappeared a year or two later), and the chain Penang had an outpost in Chinatown until it burned in 2008. So what exactly have we been missing? Three week-old Rickshaw Republic, located across from the now-closed Children’s Memorial Hospital in Lincoln Park, aims not only to show us the unique flavors of Indonesia but to educate Chicagoans about Indonesian culture through its artful decor. With only a little experience of what Indonesian food is like, we went there with the help of Francis Sadac, a Chicago-based food lover who grew up in and regularly travels to southeast Asia, to get a sense of how Indonesians eat and what you can sample of it at Rickshaw Republic. Here’s what we found; read our account below, then check out our slideshow of top dishes and meet the family behind it all, the Setiawan family.
The Setiawans— father Tommy Setiawan, mother Elice Sobli, and sons Oscar and Emil Setiawan— came from Indonesia in 1994 when Oscar was in high school and Emil in grade school; most recently, the parents had a restaurant in Boston but sold it to reunite the family in Chicago. The first thing we asked Oscar, who is kind of the business’s front man, was— why open across the street from a closed hospital?
"We looked for a space for a long time," he answered. "The pizza place that was here, it couldn’t make it after the hospital closed. But we see our audience as the whole neighborhood. It’s a neighborhood that’s looking for something different." At the same time, "With the [DePaul] students around here, we need to offer food at a price they can afford. That’s why we have things that are Indonesian street food." With no particular part of Chicago having a concentration of Indonesians, they chose Lincoln Park as an area that would take to their food— and which Indonesians in the suburbs would visit on the weekends (which they are already doing in big numbers).
The food, Francis explained, has points of similarity to Filipino food (which he grew up on) and is often compared to Thai by non-Asians. But it has its own flavors— and variations throughout the country. The older Setiawans originally came from Sumatra, where the food is less sweet, and Elice, the main cook, uses her own family recipes for dishes such as the fishcake balls, pempek bulat. But they’ve dialed up the use of palm sugar a little to match the way food is prepared in Jakarta, the largest city and a common baseline for all Indonesians. There’s also heat in the food, but not as much as it might have from other regions such as Sulawesi, where chilis are more common, let alone neighboring countries such as Thailand. Still, their housemade sambal, a chili paste used as a near-universal condiment, is powerful with both palm sugar’s mellow, honey-like sweetness and a chili kick.
We try a couple of the street foods but Francis is most eager to get to some of the full plates— "This is how they really eat in Indonesia, similar to the rest of Southeast Asia— family style, a bunch of different things and a plate of rice." Conversation turns to the rijstaffel, the smorgasbord of Indonesian foods which is one of the Dutch culinary legacies from 400 years of colonization, and Tommy explains that they plan to offer rijstaffels to groups in the near future, once they’ve really settled in to the operation and mastered a wider range of dishes.
Francis explains what excites him about Rickshaw Republic, compared to the restaurants of his own nationality, Filipino, in Chicago: "With so many ethnic groups, you get basically immigrant restaurants, the steam table of home cooking that’s not very inspired and just fills a need. I feel like the cooking here is a little more thoughtful and elevated. It’s still home-cooked food or street food, it’s not Indonesian royal cuisine, but it’s done with skill and a desire to communicate their culture.
"At the same time, you have a lot of cultural appropriation at the higher end, non-native chefs taking credit for cooking the food of other countries ‘authentically.’ It drives me nuts that Andy Ricker of Pok Pok is the face of Thai food in America! I think he would think about all the old Thai ladies that he learned it from in Chiang Mai, and say that it’s ridiculous that he’s the face of Thai food. I like that here, Indonesian cooks represent their own food in a direct and honest way."
Our meal ends with cendol, a traditional icy drink from Indonesia made with coconut milk, palm sugar water and little squiggles something like the bubbles in bubble tea. Francis’ verdict on the cendol and by extension, the whole dinner: "This tastes like Southeast Asia in a glass to me."