Simpang Asia brings Indonesian flavors to LA – Culinary Backstreets

Leni Kumala and her husband Welly Effendi were not planning to open an Indonesian restaurant when they arrived in Los Angeles from their home country. When Simpang Asia first opened in 2002, it was a small grocery store in Palms that sold Indonesian goods. Leni and Welly live in Palms and noticed that there was nowhere to get these items without going to the San Gabriel Valley. Currently, Simpang Asia is a full-service restaurant with two locations in LA and is one of the most popular places in town to get Indonesian food.

I sat down over a meal with owner Leni Kumala to hear about how Simpang Asia got started. I ordered the grilled tilapia with garlic soy sauce and Leni suggested we get it. spinach (sautéed water spinach with garlic belacan sauce). “It goes very well with the fish,” Leni observed.

Leni began to tell the story of how Simpang Asia slowly made the switch to a restaurant. A few years after opening Simpang Asia as a grocery store, some Indonesian home cooks asked Leni and Welly to sell some of their prepared food at the store, but the health department soon closed it as Simpang Asia had no kitchen. The incident prompted them to rent the kitchen at the bakery next door. The bakery was only using the kitchen in the morning, so Simpang Asia started cooking and selling a simple lunch menu using Welly’s recipes. When the bakery closed in 2005, Leni and Welly decided to take over the space and opened a small cafe while still operating the grocery store.

Back then, the now-closed Ramayani and Indo Cafe were the only other places to get Indonesian food outside of SGV, and they were a little more expensive, with a more old-fashioned vibe. “We realized that our customers were mostly students, so we decided to go that route,” Lenny said of his decision to make Simpang Asia more accessible with a casual atmosphere that would appeal to a younger crowd. It worked. Simpang Asia has become popular with Indonesian students at UCLA and Santa Monica College, including yours.

I remember devouring combos of rice in Styrofoam containers brought to my dorms, or eating a whole fried fish and rice when a friend with a car offered to drive to the cafe. wrapped rice – a rice dish with beef rendang, chicken curry, egg sambal and vegetable curry, all wrapped in banana leaf that adds a special aroma – has been one of the signature items since the early days of coffee.

Jenny Widjaja, born in Jakarta, moved to the Los Angeles area in 2004, and she remembers going to Simpang Asia for the first time in 2005 when she was taking classes at the nearby UCLA Extension after colleagues told about it. In addition to the nasi bungkus, Jenny really enjoyed getting the extra spicy fried rice called fried rice jtorment. “It was so spicy, every time I ate it I couldn’t even finish it, but I still kept ordering it because it was so good,” she said. (Rest assured, most dishes at Simpang Asia are not as spicy as this one!).

As Leni and Welly expanded the kitchen, so did their menu. The current menu showcases the various influences of Indonesian cuisine – a fascinating glimpse into the country’s history, if you know what to look for. There are Chinese-Indonesian products such as fried kwetiaw (fried rice noodles), Arab-influenced street food like martabak, and a comforting oxtail soup brought to Indonesia by Europeans during the colonial era. All these dishes are commonly eaten in Indonesia even today. Of course, there are also traditional Indonesian dishes like Yellow Ricea celebratory dish of yellow saffron rice served with sate chicken, fried noodles and more.

As the cafe originally catered to Indonesian students, some dishes were inspired by the street food students in Indonesia eat with friends after school. snacks like siomay bandung (Shrimp and Chicken Steamed Dumplings with Tofu and Egg served with Peanut Sauce) and meat-ball (a meatball soup) are sold from street carts near schools and colleges across Indonesia, and Simpang Asia has become the go-to destination for Indonesian college students in Los Angeles, a gathering place full of nostalgic food.

Over the years, Asian groceries have become more widely available at major grocery stores and online, and more Asian markets have opened in neighboring neighborhoods. The basic instant noodles, Indomie, can now be found on Amazon and even Ralph’s. Demand for Simpang Asia’s groceries has slowed, so a few years ago they decided to close the grocery section and focus only on the restaurant, even getting halal certification for it. They opened a second location in Venice in late 2020, initially choosing the location for its proximity to Palms. They thought they would primarily use the second location to help with prep during the busy dinner service and take food to the original location, but soon the Venice location was just as busy.

While Indonesian cuisine has gained more exposure in Los Angeles lately, there are still only a handful of places to get Indonesian food in the city — and some of them have closed due to the pandemic. Simpang Asia has come a long way from its early days as a small market – according to the owners, their current customers are 60% non-Asian, a big change from the early days when the customer pool was 95% non-Asian. Indonesians. Leni and Welly haven’t changed the menu much, however, still retaining the flavors of the house and introducing the breadth of Indonesian cuisine to more and more Angelenos.

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