Welcome to East of the River Eats, a new weekly column in which Javier Cabral explores and documents obscure dining destinations east of the Los Angeles River. Yes, Los Angeles has a river, and it happens to be east of downtown. Want to suggest an eastside haunt? Share here.
What kind of food does one find in East LA? A rich suadero (braised brisket) taco from a late night taco stand perhaps? Sure. Maybe the original burrito and salsa roja that started it all at the first ever 24-Hour King Taco in L.A? Yes, although you might need two to fill up since the portions continue to shrink. Anyway, now you can add probably the tastiest sop buntut (Indonesian oxtail soup) found at Little Java, my little secret for years. No, I’m not much of a coffee geek, I am talking about Java, as in the main island of Indonesia.
Little Java lies deep in the offbeat, interior strip-mall wilderness of Floral and Atlantic Blvd. Ok, ok? not technically “East L.A” for all you geography nazis but tell that to East L.A College that sits on the same block. This is one of those restaurants that you could drive by ten times in broad daylight and never realize its existence.
Little Java has actually opened and closed several times, and just recently reopened this year under Imanuel Boy Gemilang and his wife Jessica Christiana. They came to the U.S in 1998 from Jakarta. He handles the front of the house and she makes the magic happen in the back.
Upon entering the restaurant, I was ready to order the Indonesian staples of tempe and gado-gado. “Why? If you’ve already tried?” asks Imanuel when I tell him that I’ve visited his home country in my past. Thus, my order is ignored and a plate of the house’s prized specialty appetizer, batagor, appears in front of me. Batagor is a soybean specialty. It's a chewy, peppery, mochi-esque fishcake that is tucked inside fried tofu triangles and then doused with a sweet and salty peanut sauce.
Keeping it fresh, Imanuel also presented me with rujak “Indonesian Bridal Salad” instead of my usual gado-gado salad. The two dishes are quite similar with the signature raw cut veggies, onion shrimp chips, and a hard-boiled, only difference is that the salad's peanut sauce is funk-ified with a little fermented shrimp paste. I can’t get enough of the stinky stuff, but order with discretion if you are eating with an Indonesian foodie.
The menu offers many other strong dishes such as lamb sate, Indonesian fried chicken, a bunch of different “exotic” mie noodle dishes and nasi rice dishes, but if you only get one thing here, go with the sop buntut, Indonesia’s pride and glory in one extravagantly spiced soup. Cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg taste excellent in pumpkin pie, but the flavors pair even more perfectly in a soup of braised oxtail quarters. The soup is topped with fried onion pieces, Indonesia’s Parmesan, basically added to everything. Scoop up some coconut rice with lime juice and pickled veggies, dip your spoon in the broth, add a little pulled meat, and prepare to have a flavor and texture revelation. Make sure to suck the bones clean afterwards, don’t worry its ok when food tastes this good.
For dessert, you are good to go with any of their icy based smoothies (durian!) or crushed ice concoctions made with coconut milk.
All dishes cost under $10.