Slideshow: Explore the Food and Culture of Indonesia With Rickshaw Republic

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.”

Rickshaw Republic is named for the most common form of public transportation throughout Indonesia. This model rickshaw is decorated in the style of one of Indonesia’s regions, Sulawesi, but it has one feature common to all Indonesian rickshaws, which sets them apart from those in countries such as Japan: the driver is in the back. Why? Because Indonesia is very hot… and rickshaw drivers sweat.
Tommy Setiawan, father of the family who owns the restaurant, wants it to introduce Indonesian culture as well as Indonesian food to Chicagoans, and examples of the culture of the archipelago nation run throughout the restaurant. Javanese puppets hang above one part of the restaurant, next to wood panels carved to suggest local mythology and crafts such as batik. Wooden knobs that look like chess pieces (a very popular game in Indonesia) hang over the counter, and the chairs are deliberately mismatched— as they are in street cafes all over the country.
Masks are displayed on a back wall near the restrooms.
Much of the menu is Indonesian street food, including satay sticks. These are tempeh (a fermented bean curd which was invented in Indonesia), in peanut sauce with fried shallots.
Pempek bulat, or fishcake balls, made with starch for an unexpectedly rubbery texture and served with a sweet vinegar sauce. These are made to the mom’s secret recipe from her homeland, Sumatra.
Martabak is called an Asian pancake, though once the thin crepe is fried, it has a crispy texture not unlike filo. These are filled with ground beef, egg and onion; we asked if there are other kinds and were told, no, they’re always ground beef, egg and onion. Both the satay and the martabak come with a vinegary cucumber salad called acar, though each has its own style— the satay’s had purple onions, while the martabak’s had carrots.
Gado Gado means, essentially, Mix Mix, and is the name for a common salad made with bean sprouts, potatoes, egg, fried tofu and krupak (rice crackers) in various flavors. It’s usually coated in the same peanut sauce as the tempeh satay, though they follow the idea of a popular Jakarta restaurant in using cashew sauce instead. Normally in Indonesia it’s served ice cold, but since this is Chicago in February, they slightly warm it.
Kalasan Chicken is a chicken leg marinated in palm sugar and tamarind sauce, served with housemade sambal, a chili-based sauce which, as they make it in the style of Javanese cooks, is sweet-hot.
Beef rendang is the national dish of indonesia— “There are as many rendangs as they are cooks,” Francis says— and the Setiawans’ is drier than many, which Francis describes as “soupy.” It turns up in Nasi Lemak, a popular dish that’s more like a buffet on a plate, with samplings of beef rendang, fried anchovies, shredded egg and curried pickled vegetables served around a cone of coconut rice. Beef and fish are the most common meats, except in Bali which has a large Hindu population; pork is relatively rare in the predominantly Muslim country, though it turns up among the substantial Chinese emigre population.
Each week the mother of the family, Elice Sobli, plans a list of “Mommy Specials” which are served alongside the regular menu; some will be rotated into the permanent menu as customers react positively to them. One on this week’s menu is called Batavia Soto; soto is soup, and it’s beef in a coconut broth with vegetables, a cracker made from a bitter root called melinjo, and potato fritters called frikadel, an inheritance from the Dutch who colonized Indonesia, which you dunk in the broth. There was actually less exchange of foods between the colonizers and the colonized in Indonesia than in many other places (e.g., the British and India or the French and Vietnam); the main one was less a food than a manner of serving, the Indonesian variation on a smorgasbord called a rijstaffel (rice table). Rickshaw Republic has plans to offer a rijstaffel down the road, once they settle in to running the restaurant comfortably.
The iced drink cendol is the most popular dessert in Indonesia. It comes like this, with coconut milk on top and palm sugar water on the bottom, and what look like bright green spaetzle in the middle.
Mix it together and it looks surprisingly like an iced coffee… with little worms made of Play-Doh in it. They’re actually a starch mixed with pandan, a local herb, to offer a texture similar to that of bubble tea, and as unnatural as the color may look, it’s simply the starch and the natural herb.
Rickshaw Republic: Oscar Setiawan, Elice Sobli, Tommy Setiawan, and Emil Setiawan.
Slideshow: Explore the Food and Culture of Indonesia With Rickshaw Republic