Gado gado, according to the website for the restaurant with the same name, is a salad made with raw and lightly cooked vegetables, tofu, egg, and peanut sauce. It’s a recipe that’s “chaotic, all mixed up.”
It’s an apt description for one of the signature dishes of a country as diverse as Indonesia, which comprises hundreds of ethnic groups and thousands of tiny islands in the South Pacific. Indonesian food, relatively unseen in Portland until now, has sprung up in the form of two restaurants: the trendy Gado Gado in the Hollywood District, and the more traditional Wajan, just a mile away in Laurelhurst.
I love being at Gado Gado, sipping a non-alcoholic strawberry shrub ($4) or a gimlet made with arrack, a sugarcane-based spirit from Southeast Asia, with super-sweet servers who never miss a beat. But multiple visits also leave me feeling the restaurant has embraced the chaos endemic to its namesake a bit too much.
Thomas Pisha-Duffly, a Han Oak alumnus with Chinese and Indonesian family roots, has an assertive hand with flavors and spices, and a prodigious mind for new dishes. It’s a catch-22: A bite of the gado gado salad ($12), for example, is a thrilling ride that includes a tempeh so tasty you’d never miss the meat, but halfway through, the spicy peanut sauce starts to feel overly thick, especially when you’re varying it with bites of other highly flavored dishes.
I’m obsessed with the wok-fried yu choy ($12), simple greens with mushrooms and a ton of umami, but there’s little on the menu to balance it. Even the rice is infused with aromatics. Additionally, many of Gado Gado’s plates skew sweet, including the signature beef rendang ($22), which begs for more acid, and several of the soups, especially a recent red braised pork noodles ($21) that I took home, where I diluted the sugary broth with water and spice for leftovers.
A whole Dungeness crab ($60), fried in a salt-and-pepper style batter, was a messy, delicious feast. But you’re ordering it just for the crab, which offered perfect, deep-fried bites of crab fat in the shell, and crispy claws infused with so much flavor. The dish also comes with too-oily cheung fun rice noodle rolls and a totally unnecessary Hollandaise sauce.
Gado Gado’s menu changes nearly daily in some way. It’s a noble impulse to have so many great ideas, but Pisha-Duffly would be well served to slow his noodle roll, because 1) it’s damn near impossible to know if the dish you loved one visit will be there next time (come back, quail skewers!) and 2) it simply doesn’t allow the chefs time to really dial in their dishes.
At Wajan, chef/owner Feny Lim hews more traditional, with a rundown of classics done right. The nasi campur ($13) is an Indonesian answer to a Middle Eastern mezze, with shareable servings of curried jackfruit with green beans, crispy fried tempeh, spicy hard-boiled egg and eggplant, and a giant puffy rice cracker standing tall like a sail over the plate.
A bone-in fried chicken ($13) featured two pieces of breast meat (which I wish were dark meat) with kremes, AKA crispy rice flour bits, on top. Served with cabbage, cucumber, and tomato to make a wrap, its accompanying spicy chili sauce packs a wallop after a few bites. The shredded beef rendang ($16) is more complex and balanced than at Gado Gado, made with a spicy curry base and served with an omelet and rice.
And no matter how hot it is outside, don’t miss the burbur ayam ($11), a savory rice porridge with ample servings of turmeric and shredded chicken on top. It’s thick and inviting, with krupuk (tapioca crackers) sprinkled in alongside fried soybeans and shallots for a bowl of total satisfaction. I loved it paired with the Hijau cocktail, a bright green confection of genever, lime, Chartreuse, and pandan simple syrup ($11). Canned Bintang Indonesian pilsner is also available ($4), and worth trying just to say you’ve had it.
Note: While there’s plenty of gluten-free options noted on the menu, most dishes are flavored with candlenut, a Southeast Asian nut similar to a macadamia, so Wajan may not be the spot to take your allergic friends.
It’s uncanny that Portland’s only two Indonesian restaurants would open in the same month, and so relatively close to one another. But like the diverse nation itself, their approaches to the country’s cuisine couldn’t be more different.