Indonesia is blessed with some 17,000 islands, and that means almost as many variations on the massive country's cuisine. No one has quite figured out how to market it to Chicagoans yet, but there's a really charming new place in Lincoln Park where one family's dream to spread the word is coming true.
The sight of chicken satay skewers, being basted in peanut sauce, gives one the impression that the food at Rickshaw Republic might be Thai. But the menu is all about Indonesia; specifically, the street food.
"In Jakarta, oh man you see a lot of people selling food on the streets and from stalls; that's the food that we grew up with," said Emil Setiawan, who runs the restaurant with his family.
And those skewers, served with peanut sauce and a sweet soy, topped with fried onions, are a great introduction.
"Peanut is the biggest ingredient that we have in our country and also with coconut milk," Setiawan said.
And coconut milk shows up in the aptly-named Coconut Rice - where chicken, or in this case, beef, is braised for three hours, served almost bento box style, along with curry pickled vegetables, fried anchovies with peanuts, some shredded eggs and crispy garlic chips.
"You have the rice, you have the meat, you have the vegetable and you have also the small side dishes that makes a complete meal," he said.
Martabak is a sort of Indonesian crepe, stuffed with ground beef, onions and eggs. It's pan-fried until crisp, then served with a side of acar, or pickled carrots and cucumbers.
Peanuts find their way into many dishes, like a creamy cashew dressing that envelopes the Gado Gado salad.
"When you say 'gado gado' in our country, it means a mixture of things. So you have your steamed cabbage, you have your lettuce, your bean sprouts, tomatoes and cucumbers," said Setiawan.
Two sleepers on the menu - both sort of dessert-ish drinks: es cendol, with mung bean flour, coconut milk and palm sugar and es doger, featuring cassava, young coconut and topped with tropical jackfruit.
Clearly, the flavors are reminiscent of home, but the presentations are still approachable for a wider audience.
"It's a family-owned business where we bring not only the culture but also the food and the ethnicity from our country," he said.
Another Indonesian option in the region is the rice table, which is a catering-only operation, but they host occasional dinners inside restaurants.
2312 N. Lincoln Ave.
More Indonesian food in Chicago:
The Rice Table (catering only)
3820 Enfield Ave, 60076