An order of nasi lemak: coconut-milk-saturated rice surrounded by beef rendang, pickled carrot, shredded omelet, fried anchovy, shrimp crackers, peanuts, and spicy sambal
An order of nasi lemak: coconut-milk-saturated rice surrounded by beef rendang, pickled carrot, shredded omelet, fried anchovy, shrimp crackers, peanuts, and spicy sambal Credit: Andrea Bauer

Tommy Setiawan wants you to know that the egg noodles that come in a bowl of pempek telor at Rickshaw Republic are always served cold. If you, like a certain unenlightened Yelper he’s become aware of, want them warm, he will see that you get them warm. But you should be advised that on the streets of Palembang in South Sumatra where Setiawan’s wife, Elice, grew up, they are served cold, and that’s the way they serve them by default at the city’s newest and only Indonesian restaurant.

The noodles might be cold—more like room temperature, actually—but the yellow spaghettilike tangle is served alongside a hot, deep-fried, sliced fish cake that tightly jackets a hard-cooked egg. And noodles and egg rest in a warm bath of dark, chiled vinegar broth so that each bite is a changeable mix of springy, snappy textures and contrasting temperatures that, unless you’re numb to all sensation, will capture and hold your attention.

Setiawan so wants you to understand and appreciate this unusual dish, and the others on the menu, that he’s likely to visit your table, unroll a map of Indonesia’s 17,000-some islands, and show you precisely where it comes from. And then he might go on to tell you that the food from South Sumatra tends to be spicy, unlike, say, the food of the capital, Jakarta, in western Java, where it tends to be sweeter. And perhaps he’ll point out that the potato and beef patty that you’re meant to dip in a special chicken soup called soto ayam —with rice vermicelli and shreds of chewy, batter-fried chicken breast—is called a perkedel, and emerged from the centuries when Dutch colonists occupied the islands. Or that the delicate, crisp crepe pockets called martabak that are filled with egg, ground beef, and onion—and their little accompanying salad of sweet pickled cucumbers—are of Arabic origin, via India.

They don’t put lemon in SariWangi tea in Indonesia, but say the word and you can have it.

This sort of intel isn’t at all intrusive; frequently it’s illuminating. Chicago hasn’t had much opportunity to explore this vastly varied and underrepresented cuisine since the short-lived Angin Mamiri closed (though caterers the Rice Table are still around). Setiawan, who used to run a restaurant in Boston with Elice, is joined by his son Oscar in the front of the house, where intricately carved wooden birdcages, parasols, and puppets dangle from the ceilings, and fearsome masks and wood carvings adorn the walls, an environment created by the designer Suhail, whose work you might remember from the late Tizi Melloul, Del Toro, or DeLaCosta.

Elice is in the kitchen with their other son, Emil, preparing the dishes, the majority of which are particular examples of regional street food spanning the archipelago. That means familiar portable things like peanut-sauce-drenched tempeh or chicken satay, along with soy-marinated beef and pork, the latter of which is uncommon among Indonesia’s Muslim majority but not on the Hindu island of Bali.

It also means deep-fried snacks, like springy fish cake balls bound with tapioca flour or shattery battered chicken wings studded with crispy garlic and shellacked with a sweet chile-ginger glaze.

More ample dishes, such as chicken curry or beef rendang, illustrate the indispensability of rice all over the islands. The latter is a super-slow-cooked, currylike stew in which the liquid is simmered off until the meat darkens, absorbs the spices, and sizzles in the pan. You can sample either with plain rice or, in an order of nasi lemak, with a perfect cone of coconut-milk-saturated rice that’s surrounded by an array of contrasting items: pickled carrot, shredded omelet, fried anchovy, shrimp crackers, peanuts, and spicy sambal. The idea is to customize each bite with fork and knife, not unlike the way one would with Thai shrimp-paste rice.

The everyday menu is tightly focused, and it may not take you long to notice repetitive elements—egg noodle, shrimp crackers, fried stuff. As diverse as Indonesian food is, there are three dishes blanketed by thick peanut or cashew sauce. One such dish, the gado gado, is a smothered-and-covered, hot-and-cold salad of boiled eggs, steamed vegetables, and shrimp chips that might be the most internationally familiar Indonesian dish after satay. And there are three dishes similar to the pempek telor based on springy dumplings formed from minced fish and tapioca starch. One of them, the batagor, is composed of crispy fried dumplings of minced fish and shrimp bound to pillowy chunks of tofu, which are slathered in thick peanut sauce. They’re delicious, but heavy and rich, and if you make the mistake of ordering them with the gado gado you might start to feel you’ve developed a nut allergy.

There’s a weekly rotating list of three “Mommy specials” that diversify things a bit. One week it may be the aforementioned soto ayam, and the next a meatball soup, brimming with crispy fried-beef-stuffed wontons and tofu, or deep-fried empanadas stuffed with chicken, boiled eggs, and vermicelli, or a heaping mound of spicy mie goreng: egg noodles stir-fried with finely minced beef balls, chicken, and egg.

For dessert there’s a pair of refreshing icy sweets, including a pink rose-syrup slush layered with soft young coconut, jackfruit, and cassava noodles.

Rickshaw Republic is one of the more unique and special places in town, and not just for the singularity of the food. Sure, the Setiawan family have cornered the near-nonexistent market on Indonesian food in Chicago, but they’re such earnest ambassadors for it that even if you’re a first-timer, you should be evangelizing its virtues after you leave.