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Choi pan from Singkawang Cafe in El Monte
Choi pan from Singkawang Cafe in El Monte

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This Indonesian Restaurant in El Monte Focuses on Borneo’s Fascinating Island Cuisine

A classic strip mall find next to a badminton club

While the San Gabriel Valley is known for the depth of its regional Chinese cuisines, along with the large population that drives it, it’s also home to the largest Indonesian population in the United States. The result is several Indonesian restaurants scattered around the Valley, presenting various regional sub-styles of the cuisine. It speaks volumes that there are now two restaurants specializing in food from the island of Borneo. The newest entry is the Singkawang Café, which opened in November 2018.

Singkawang Café joins Alhambra’s Borneo Kalimantan Cuisine in serving dishes from the island, known as Kalimantan in Indonesia. Located in a three unit strip mall in El Monte, it’s in front of a badminton club. This might be the ideal location for an Indonesian restaurant considering the fast-paced racquet game is Indonesia’s national sport. Indonesia has won the Thomas Cup, which is badminton’s equivalent of the tennis Davis Cup, 13 times.

Indonesian cuisine is made up of diverse influences, from local indigenous peoples and Asian immigrants to Indian and European traders. The country, which covers a large swath of ocean as the world’s largest archipelago, also lends itself to many regional variations and cuisines. The café is named for the city of Singkawang, which is located on the island’s west coast. Singkawang has a large Chinese population, with the historic immigrants bringing an even stronger influence to the regional cuisine.

The restaurant has a small menu, consisting of just seven appetizers, ten Thai entrees, and nine Indonesian entrees — listed as Singkawang entrees. For such an ultra-specific cuisine, there’s surprisingly little overlap with the menu at Borneo Kalimantan. The most unique item among those specialties is choi pan, a dish not previously seen at local Indonesian restaurants. Choi pan are steamed dumplings that originated with Teochow Chinese immigrants to the island, and particularly to the west coast of the island. Rice and sago flour provide almost translucent wrappers around a filling consisting of chives and chopped jicama cooked with dried shrimp. Fried garlic tops the dumplings, with a potently spicy dipping sauce served alongside.

Bakso, a meatball soup

Nearly every cuisine has some form of meatball soup. That’s the case in Indonesia with baso (also known as bakso), a popular street food sold from stalls or push carts. Two types of meatballs — beef and pork/mixed meat are joined in a mild, yet well-seasoned broth by two types of rice noodles — thin vermicelli and flat noodles. Triangular slabs of tofu, sliced scallions, and fried garlic also sit in the broth. Thin beef shreds are a nice inclusion.

There’s also rujak, a spicy and sweet mixed fruit and vegetable salad. The dish is popular across Indonesia as well as in Malaysia, where it is known as rojak, There are many different variations of the dish across the many islands. The version at Singkawang is comprised of thinly sliced carrots, jicama, pineapple, and cucumbers, covered in a sauce of chili, palm sugar, tamarind, shrimp paste, and ground peanuts with ground shrimp powder spread atop. Diners can pick their own level of spiciness.

Rujak, a spicy ans sweet mixed fruit and vegetable salad at Singkawang Cafe
Rujak, a spicy ans sweet mixed fruit and vegetable salad at Singkawang Cafe

Yet another unique item is hakong singkawang, shrimp paste wrapped in deep fried tofu skin, served with a sweet and sour sauce on the side. Shrimp loaf would be a more apt description of the dish. Another worthwhile dish is Singkawang chicken curry. The dish features bone-in pieces of ultra tender chicken, along with large chunks of potatoes in a savory yellow curry broth.

Much like Malaysian cuisine, shrimp is an extremely common ingredient in many Indonesian dishes, particularly in the forms of shrimp paste, dried shrimp or shrimp powder, so anyone with shellfish allergies should read the menu extra closely, be extremely careful about their choices and be sure ask their server as well. Or, perhaps Indonesian cuisine isn’t for you.

Chicken curry at Singkawang Cafe in El Monte
Chicken curry at Singkawang Cafe in El Monte

The remaining entrees should be familiar to those who have visited other Indonesian or Malaysian restaurants. Along with the choi pan, the owner tells Eater that nasi campur and jump mien are the most representative dishes. The former is a meat and rice plate which again shows the Chinese char siu influence, while the latter is a bowl of egg noodles topped with shrimp, pork (both crispy and seasoned) and fish balls.

There’s also laksa (noodles in a coconut curry broth with shrimp, fish cake, egg and tofu), cah kangkong belacan (stir-fried water spinach/morning glory with fermented shrimp paste and fermented soy beans) and another Hokkien dish, cap cay rice (stir-fried vegetables with shrimp, squid, pork, fish balls and fish cake in a gravy).

The owner hopes to add other Kalimantan/Indonesian dishes to the menu in the future, but for now, Singakawang Cafe remains one of SGV’s most unique regional Indonesian finds. Open daily from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Singkawang Café, 10404 Valley Blvd., El Monte, 626-448-8886.

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