Conquer the funky green bean, and other western Indonesian delights.
"You're not going to like that," says Edy Yu when I ask about a special called "satay Padang" taped to the wall at Sky Cafe, a cheery little Indonesian restaurant on Ritner Street.
Well, what about the salted fish fried rice?
"Not going to like that, either."
OK, what are "sator" beans?
"We call them stinky beans, and you are definitely not going to like those," says Yu. "I don't even like them. They stay in your body for three days . . . . "
Yu's expression lightens suddenly, though, as it dawns on him what's about to happen: "Wait a second. The more I tell you not to get something, the more you want it, right?"
That little maxim should be inscribed as Rule No. 1 for adventure foodists, and the contrarian art of reverse menu counseling is duly applied as Yu heads back to his mother's kitchen with an order for satay Padang, fishy fried rice, and a side of sator beans. Nothing is so scary that it can't be nibbled once, especially if it offers a glimpse of rarely seen authentic flavors, such as the Medan-style specialties on display at pleasant Sky Cafe.
And almost all of the dishes I encountered at this two-year-old corner spot owned by chef Lily Tjia, her charming daughter, Betty Yu, and Yu's husband, Anto Lys, would appeal to less-daring diners, too.
There was soto Medan, a soulful chicken soup filled with tender meat, rice noodle threads, and snappy sprouts whose aromatic broth was touched with just a brush of coconut-milk richness. There were scoops of coconut-steamed rice topped with slow-stewed beef rendang, fragrant with ginger, turmeric, and red chiles that lend color and an earthy edge to the sweet coconut-milk braise. Skewers of more common beef and chicken satay were among the best I've had, the tender meat infused with a coriander marinade before it is char-grilled, then glazed in a peanut sauce vibrant with curry, lemongrass, and galangal.
These dishes, informed by the family's roots in western Indonesia, will be familiar to those who've tasted the unique melting-pot cuisine of the vast archipelago nation that sits between China and Australia, and also draws influences from India, Malaysia, and Thailand. Cooking from the city of Medan in northern Sumatra, though, is generally not as sweet as the more southern Javanese-style that Betty Yu says predominates in the longer-standing restaurants of South Philadelphia's Indonesian enclave.
The neighborhood is more known, of course, as a haven for traditional Italian bread (Cacia's), hoagies (Primo's), and cannoli (Potito's.) But after more than a decade as one of America's largest Indonesian communities (numbering a few thousand), the flavors of the island nation are now well-ensconced, from humble Hardena at Hicks and Moore, where steam-table bargains of curried fish and jackfruit stew can be had for $7, to the market aisles of Cafe Pendawa (1529 Morris) for Indonesian-style ramen (IndoMie), an array of seafood-infused "kerupuk" crackers, and green and red sambal chile pastes made fresh at Pendawa's sibling Indonesia Restaurant.
The arrival of Sky's Sumatran-accented menu adds another wrinkle of regional interest, served up in a space that may be the most pleasant of our Indonesian dining rooms. And topping out at $7.50 a platter, it's hard to beat for flavors with this kind of pop and personality.
The best are the dishes that are signatures from Medan. The pork platter called "nasi campur Medan" is especially notable, with rings of house-made sausage (the centers with a scrapplelike softness from added flour) wrapped in crispy soy skin, deep-fried chunks of bacony pork belly marinated in kecap manis sweet soy and ginger, and sweet pink slices of Chinese-style barbecue pork fanned around rice alongside a mahogany-colored soy- and star-anise-stewed egg that looks like a giant olive and tastes like an umami grenade.
Handmade egg noodles are another regional specialty, and Tjia's, firmed overnight with potassium carbonate (like Momofuku's ramen), have a distinctively satisfying, twiny chew. They come in variations of "soup" with the bowl of chicken broth on the side and your choice of toppings. We tried the crab, with the addition of fish balls, crispy shallots, and fried wontons, and I loved the fresh oceanic punch.
An openness to a little seafood funk is beneficial to appreciating true Indonesian cooking. You can get the full effect with that fish-fried rice, the chunks of salted mackerel tossed with morsels of chicken for an unlikely-yet-harmonious combo that's similar to some Chinatown stir-fries, but also tinged with the earthy sweet soy kiss of kecap manis. The mie balacan, which sautees noodles and plump fresh shrimp, amps the tidal flavor to a higher volume with a generous dose of sambal belacan, a variation on Indonesia's famous chile sauce, blended with fermented shrimp paste. The red sambal, made from fresh-fried chiles and garlic, returns like fiery icing glazed atop a fillet of tilapia, fried crunchy (although not delicately) in a dusting of tapioca flour.
An equally flavorful green chile sambal, meanwhile, with a little anchovy tweak in the style of Padang in the province of West Sumatra, smothers a leg of chicken that's been stewed to tenderness with lemongrass and turmeric before it's fried to a crisp.
Not all of the good dishes here require brow-mopping hot-pepper relief. I loved the stir-fry of soy-darkened rice noodle threads with yu choy greens, shrimp, and egg - added at the end, so it coats the noodles, instead of scrambled Thai-style into bits at the beginning. The Sky salad brought a refreshing variation on Indonesia's famous "gado-gado" dish of vegetables in peanut sauce: a plate of crunchy greens topped with crispy fried tofu and an addictive peanut-strewn dressing that blends tropical pineapple and palm sugar with just the right tingle of bird-chile heat.
Another dish that turned out to be surprisingly mild was the infamous satay Padang, which brought skewers of curiously tender "beef" - which turned out to be tongue, perched over firm cubes of steamed rice cake and smothered in a gravy of aromatic lemongrass-galangal broth thickened with tapioca.
A little tongue is no big deal to even the most novice adventure eater - especially when it's this flavorful, and the textures are such tender comfort. I will concede, however, that sator beans are for advanced palates only. These almond-shaped green beans (also known as "petai") are apparently high in nutrients, but they more than earn their stinky reputation with a pungent, metallic aftertaste, served alongside a dollop of sambal chile paste for a reason. A dab of that red heat somehow both masks and transforms them into the Devil's edamame - at once repellent and genuinely irresistible.
With so many of our other plates at Sky Cafe effortlessly devoured, I knew Edy Yu was watching. Which, of course, invoked Rule No. 2 of the daring foodist's bylaws: Eat what you order.
So we each took our share of those little green beans, savored the sator's funky song, and smiled, knowing we'd be back.
Betty Yu talks about Sky Cafe at www.philly.com/labanreviews.
Online chats with Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan will resume April 3 at 2 p.m. at http://go.philly.com/phillytalk 'EndText