For years, Jimmy Sujanto has been providing Bay Area Indonesian expats with a taste of home through his catering business. For a minimum of $70, Sujanto prepares the fragrant and fiery food of his native Sumatra and delivers it to homes and offices from San Jose to Sacramento.
Now, with Padi, Sujanto’s restaurant in the Elmwood district of Berkeley, the expats can finally go to him. And the rest of us have a prime spot from which to discover this sumptuous cuisine.
By my count, Padi is one of only five Indonesian restaurants in the Bay Area. The cuisine is spicy Asian comfort food at its best: Fried shallots, ground chilies and heaps of salty shrimp paste decorate halal meats, tofu, tempeh, noodles and rice.
There are a few dishes on the menu that don’t pack heat, but, for the most part, Indonesian food is very spicy. No one apologizes for that.
The source of that heat is sambal, a thick, red condiment that Sujanto makes with ground Thai chilies, fresh lime juice, tomatoes and shrimp paste. His sambal balado, made using the tangy chili from West Sumatra, is slathered all over Ayam Penyet ($9.95), or smashed fried chicken with spicy chili. Google it — the dish has become a cultlike favorite in the two months since Padi opened.
Crunch and heat are an addictive combination. Sujanto seasons chicken thighs with turmeric, lemon grass, shallots, garlic, sugar and coriander, then cooks the pieces on low heat for almost two hours.
He finishes them off with a quick fry, a smash, and a brush of sambal. You can request this and other house specialties as mild, medium, spicy or “crazy” spicy, but I recommend sticking to mild or medium unless your nostrils and eyeballs enjoy spewing flames.
Still, three of the best dishes on the menu are not spicy. Perkedel are divine potato pancakes that Sujanto prepares by mashing taters with salt, pepper and nutmeg then coating them with egg whites before frying them up. The result: A lace-thin crispy skin on the outside and warm, soft mashed goodness on the inside. You get four for $5.95, and you want more.
Sujanto’s signature homemade beef ball soup, Bakso Kampung ($6.95), is also not spicy. Rather, the broth has a unique briny quality and the boiled meatballs, which he makes with ground chicken and ground beef, are so moist they spring when you bite into them. They’re not the rubbery consistency you can find in some cheap pho houses.
I also loved the Tumis Buncis & Tempeh, ($8.95) a sauteed green bean dish tossed with tempeh. The fermented soybean cake is originally from Indonesia, and Sujanto scores his from a local Indonesian supplier.
He fries the tempeh with blanched greens beans and treats the whole dish to big helpings of sesame seed oil, shallots, garlic, coriander, salt and pepper. The flavors were sweet and salty, a result of soy sauce and a sweeter, Indonesian soy sauce.
Sujanto plans to add more vegan and vegetarian dishes and switch up his menu every three months. It’s a nice touch for a casual eatery, since everything else, from the tile tables and bare walls to the balcony, remains as former owners Holy Land left it when they vacated the space last year.
Don’t go to Padi for ambience. You won’t find it. What you will find is extremely evocative, affordable cuisine and a patient staff, including Sujanto, who circles the small dining area every night, willing to explain the menu. Padi isn’t a three-star white tablecloth restaurant. It gets three stars because the food is original and hard to find and is served in a friendly environment.
The only dish I didn’t like was the medium spicy Ayam Bumbu Bali, ($9.95) a Balinese-style chicken prepared and presented as a curry. I felt it lacked flavor in comparison to the fiery fried chicken. Plus, why would you have an average curry when you could have a fiery “smashed” chicken? Like all the other fans out there, that’s what we’re going back for.