By C. Thi Nguyen, Special to the Los Angeles Times
January 6, 2011
First, locate the tiny, unassuming entrance to Little London Cafe, a long, narrow, white linoleum corridor of a diner in the middle of the San Gabriel Valley's Chinese food paradise. A sign outside claims that the restaurant specializes in fish and chips. Ignore this sign. Inside, you will be presented with a laminated, black menu that lists pedestrian fish and chips and Americanized teriyaki bowls. Ignore this also.
Ask for the Kalimantan menu. There may be some confusion because some of the servers, though extraordinarily sweet and accommodating, speak very little English. Insist. Repeat the words "Kalimantan" and "Indonesian," gesticulating wildly, until they produce, from a hidden slot next to the register, a laminated red menu. Clutch this menu to your chest and bear it to your table, for you have won the prize.
Kalimantan is a province of Indonesia — the Indonesian bit of Borneo. Unless you speak Indonesian, the menu will be completely incomprehensible. This is not a problem, because, as chef-owner Phin F. Then explains, "The best things are at the top of the menu. We put them in order."
He is correct, to a point. No. 1 on the special menu is nasi campur kalimantan, the jewel in the crown of Little London Cafe: a platter of three glorious variations on a theme of meat, served over rice, all sitting in a shallow pool of radiantly savory thin gravy. If you aren't Indonesian, they will offer to present the meat, rice and sauce separately, because they seem to believe this is what non-Indonesians want. Refuse. Fight for your right to have it Indonesian-style: all in one big, wet, soul-warming pile of chow.
There is sweet Chinese sausage, fried to a crispy char; there is Hakka-style red barbecue pork; and intensely crunchy fried chicken. The key, though, is that glorious sauce, a slightly thickened, wine-spiked, garlicky chicken broth. The stuff doesn't impose itself over the meat like an American gravy; it quietly insinuates itself between all the other flavors, magically binding the pieces into one heart-warming, sopping gestalt.
The meal is accompanied by a tiny bowl of cheerfully vicious hot sauce. Experiment cautiously with the stuff, but do experiment, because the hot sauce is essential to the experience. Without it, nasi campur is all sweet, low, warm, wet comfort — all bass notes and rhythm guitar. The hot sauce — full of fresh chile bite and a crazy shrimpy funk — is the high-hat and horn section and screaming James Brown that drives the stuff from cheerful to unforgettable.
The hot sauce has to be just right, Then says. The restaurant makes three or four distinct hot sauces. The Kalimantan version of nasi campur demands a unique hot sauce to taste just right to his Kalamantan customers. "It's not a technique or a secret," Then says. "You just need the right balance of sweet, spicy and salt. That's what makes it good."
The menu, he explains, is a mix of some authentic Kalimantan specialties and some fusion dishes — dishes that Then invented from his memories of his favorite restaurants throughout Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia.
No. 2, nasi ayam madu goreng, is Indonesian fried chicken and rice. Little London Cafe is a master of deep-frying, with a taste for the dense and chunky. This isn't the fine, shattering crisp of Southern fried chicken; it's a hearty, chewy fry, halfway to crunchy jerky.
Even better, though, is No. 3, nasi melayu kal-bar — drumsticks of fried chicken and rice, but with a bit of fried tofu and a simmered egg, and covered with a densely flavored, thin pool of Indonesian curry sauce. This dish has the same mixed-up magic as the nasi campur — try piling as many bites into your fork, rolling it in the turmeric sauce and stuffing it in your mouth for a mind-expanding meld.
Nasi campur, which translates into something like "mixed rice," is a staple dish throughout Indonesia. But Then says this is, as far as he knows, the only place in the United States to get Kalimantan food, and the only place for Kalimantan-style nasi campur. He may be right that this is our first Kalimantan joint. But because this is Los Angeles, we probably have about two weeks before somebody blogs about an even better Kalimantan restaurant hidden in the back of an oil-change garage or something.
LITTLE LONDON CAFE
LOCATION: 19 S. Garfield Ave., Suite A, Alhambra; (626) 282-4477.
PRICE: Entrees, $6 to $8; drinks, $1 to $2.
DETAILS: Open 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. daily. Credit cards accepted. Street parking, small lot in back.
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