Burgs like Snottsdale and Parasite Valley may get all the kudos when it comes to living arrangements, but were I run out of central Phoenix on a rail and forced to choose, I'd take that toddlin' town of Chandler over either one of those two swells-zones. Here, as in all things, my tummy's happiness is paramount, and as Chandler plays host to some of the best Asian fare in Maricopa County, dwelling in the heart of the Silicon Desert would garner me gobs of gustatory glee.
Not only can Chandler boast of having Lee Lee Oriental Supermarket, where one can purchase everything from ice cream made from the delicious yet stinky Southeast Asian durian fruit to fresh skate wings and whole roast duck, it's also home to that dim sum paradise C-Fu Gourmet, Vietnamese eateries of note such as Cyclo, the inventive, high-end sushi spot Shimogamo, and even Thai and Filipino establishments, as in Swaddee and Manila Cafe, respectively. Indeed, it seems like every other week for me involves a drive out to this up-and-coming capital of Asian cookery to try an exciting new addition to Chandler's culinary crown.
Lately, I've been burning more rubber than Michael Waltrip going back and forth from Chandler's Lotus Asian Cafe and Grill, the only Indonesian joint in the Valley. Lotus opened a mere three months ago and has already caused a buzz among admirers of Southeast Asian cuisine. In fact, it was during a chance meeting I had with an Indonesian beauty in a local bar that I learned of Lotus' existence. And as I've always been a loyal fan of the sweet-and-spicy victuals of that far-flung archipelago (it's got more than 17,000 islands, some 240 million inhabitants and seemingly endless creativity when it comes to its unique edibles), I was soon hightailing it, once more, to Chandler.
Lotus Asian Cafe and Grill
1076 West Chandler Boulevard (northwest corner of Alma School Road and Chandler Boulevard), Chandler
480 -855-5258. Hours: Wednesday through Monday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; closed Tuesday
Rendang (red curry beef) : $7.95
Chicken satay: $8.45
Es campur (shaved ice dessert): $3.50
Though Lotus has a Chandler Boulevard address, it's hidden behind a Wells Fargo branch in an unassuming little shopping center at the northwest corner of Alma School Road and Chandler Boulevard, so you may have to make an effort to find it the first time. The cafe is a storefront operation with a few tables and chairs in front of a counter with a soda fountain and a glassed-in refrigerator with coconut and sugar cane drinks from Asia. Though the interior is mostly utilitarian, the walls are painted a pleasant, pale gold, and there are a few modest attempts at invoking Indonesian culture. On the awning above the counter are the words "Salamat Datang," or "Welcome" in Indonesian. And behind the counter on the wall is a pair of framed Indonesian wayang kulit, or traditional shadow puppets, which some of you may be familiar with from the Peter Weir film The Year of Living Dangerously starring a young Mel Gibson.
Also behind the counter is a small shrine to the deified Chinese general Kuan Kung, revered as a protector of businesses. The icon is a sign that owners Abraham Indradjaja and his charming spouse Lielis Ali share an Indochinese ethnicity, he being from the island of Java, and she hailing from Sumatra. Oddly enough, they met while college students at the University of Missouri, later moving to Arizona so that Indradjaja could pursue computer science at ASU. However, Indradjaja has always loved to cook, so he ultimately chucked his techie ways and earned a degree from the Scottsdale Culinary Institute. With Ali handling the business end of things with her accounting background, and Indradjaja producing exquisite Indonesian dishes in the kitchen, they make the perfect husband-wife team.
Though they are just starting out, their menu offers an excellent primer in the tantalizing world of Indonesian fare. For those jaded foodies out there, Lotus is a mecca of saliva-inducing sensation, worthy of frequent pilgrimages. The adventurous will especially enjoy Lotus' sop buntut, Indonesia's renowned oxtail soup. Here about three or so très tender pieces of slow-cooked oxtail are served in a thin broth flavored with nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon. Though I've had oxtail before in a thicker, peanutty soup, I find Indradjaja's version far more palatable and subtle.
Less frightening for the uninitiated, and a must during any Indonesian feast, is gado-gado, a steamed salad of kacang panjang (Indonesian string beans), hard-boiled egg, sliced potato, tofu chunks, cucumber, and bean sprouts, all mixed in a light peanut dressing and served with kerupuk, multicolored tapioca crackers, which are light and crunchy, like an airy, misshapen potato chip. These kerupuk are a traditional Indonesian snack, and Lotus sells packets of thick, pale kerupuk udang, or shrimp chips. So filling are these, just a few will slake any case of the nibbles you might have.
The Indonesian satay Lotus serves is very different from the satay you may be used to from Thai restaurants. The bits of meat on the skewers are smaller, but you might get as many as 10 skewers at once. And in addition to chicken and beef, there's also pork and lamb. The chicken comes with a peanut sauce similar to the gado-gado, and can outdo KFC when it comes to the finger-lickin' quotient. The lamb is equally delectable, covered with tiny Thai chilis and a dark-brown soy-syrup known as kecap manis. Kecap manis is common to Indonesian and Malaysian cuisine, used liberally as a condiment, and, as you might be able to guess from the pronunciation "kejap," is the origin of our word ketchup.
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Kecap manis is the stuff that makes nasi goreng, or Indonesian fried rice, look so brown and taste so savory-sweet, mixed as it is with chicken or shrimp, or lamb if you please. That savory-sweet taste is also found in the crispy-brown ayam goreng kalasan, Javanese twice-cooked chicken, braised with palm sugar. Whereas the ayam goreng kuning is a sweet-spicy-hot chicken, the sweet part of that combination comes from coconut milk, another favorite ingredient in Indonesian eats.
But the two entrees I delight in most are the rendang, or red curry beef, and the gulai kambing, or spicy lamb curry. The rendang is served on a plate as nice-sized chunks of beef encrusted with a deep brown, almost flaky sauce of coconut and spices. The merest mention of it makes me drool. Even hotter is the gulai kambing, served in a bowl, almost as a soup, with small bits of lamb ribs and lamb meat and a dozen or more different spices. Unlike anything else on the menu, the gulai kambing explodes like Chinese fireworks in your mouth.
Cool down with a giant bowl of es campur. Described on the menu as "assorted tropical fruits drink," it's really an ice cream-like mlange of shaved ice, jellied palm fruit, and lychee-like rambutans. A splendid creation, full of candied surprises, the es campur is one of those items for which folks come all the way from towns like Peoria. I don't blame them, though you can bet your grandma's bloomers that whenever I visit Lotus, I'll be ingesting quite a bit more.