While some hospitality professionals launched side hustles to survive the pandemic, 75-year-old Siu Chen made the bold leap from entrepreneurial home cook to restaurant owner with Medan Kitchen. Together with her family (two daughters, two sons-in-law, and two grandchildren), Chen transformed the bifurcated space formerly occupied by New Century Lobster in Rosemead into a hub for Indonesian cooking. One side features a takeout-only operation where upward of 50 dishes are prepared in advance, prepacked to go, and stacked to sell on a series of wobbly two-tops running through the center of the room. On the other side sits a small grocery store selling imported condiments, snacks, and instant noodles — a doorway just beyond the cash register connects the two areas.
Chen, who prepared and sold food from her home in Jakarta, Indonesia, before immigrating to the U.S. in 1998, spent the last decade nourishing a tight-knit Indonesian community centered around her Monterey Park church. Friends and acquaintances ordered her excellent home cooking — party trays filled with beef rendang, grilled pork satay, and lemongrass fried chicken — for gatherings of every size. Chen never anticipated opening her own place until this past spring, when state- and citywide stay-at-home orders forced her homespun catering business to shut down indefinitely.
With Chen’s age placing her squarely in the high-risk group for COVID-19, staying at home and turning away customers was the rightfully cautious approach. However, the abrupt halt to her daily rhythm left her feeling disheartened. “Every day I’d lie down on the recliner and watch YouTube and Facebook. My body was sick from lack of activity and I didn’t feel at home because I was not doing anything,” says Chen, as translated by her son-in-law J. Arifin.
After a few months of trying to embrace a more sedentary lifestyle, it was clear to Chen’s family that she needed a socially distanced outlet. “She’s very active; she cannot stand just sitting down and watching movies,” says Arifin. “She loves to cook.”
It took just a month after finding the location in a well-kept strip mall to obtain the necessary permits and open for business. Medan Kitchen debuted in July, just as home cooks were growing tired of planning, shopping for, cooking, and eating their own meals. While Arifin anticipated a healthy trickle of familiar faces — mostly former catering customers reuniting with Chen’s cooking — he was blown away by the number of first-timers. Around 80 to 90 percent of customers learned of Medan Kitchen through word of mouth within the Indonesian community and on social media, he says. Even with the restaurant’s location hidden from heavily trafficked Valley Boulevard, eaters have found their way there, as evidenced by the crowds filling the shop’s narrow walkways and the consistently sold-out menus at the end of each day.
Nearly all of Medan Kitchen’s offerings are served at room temperature and hold exceedingly well; this tradition of cooking food that isn’t immediately eaten is common in parts of Indonesia, including Chen’s hometown of Medan, where daily meal times aren’t fixed. The menu — which changes often, its latest additions shared on Instagram — always includes the restaurant’s two bestsellers: lontong sayur medan and nasi kuning komplit. Chen’s longtime customers call her Aunty Lontong Medan as a nod to her signature dish of steamed rice cakes served in a curry vegetable soup with funk-forward long beans and Thai eggplants. The nasi kuning komplit brings together fragrant turmeric rice with green chile-spiked tempeh, fried chicken, beef rendang, and a spicy boiled egg. Chen’s lifelong dedication to mastering these dishes is apparent at first bite — the flavors are rich yet balanced, with a skillful interplay of texture and spice.
With the opening of Medan Kitchen, Chen wanted to share her newfound platform with like-minded cooks who previously sold their wares at small Indonesian markets across Los Angeles. Rounding out the menu are appetizers, desserts, and snacks prepared by half a dozen home cooks, each one labeled with a first name to indicate its maker. The selection includes delicate steamed dumplings filled with jicama and dried shrimp (choipan kalimantan) made by “Jeanet” and savory sticky rice cakes dusted in chile and coconut flakes (ketan bumbu) from “Yohana.”
Though the purpose of the restaurant was to create a safe space for Chen to cook and sell her food to the public, Medan Kitchen’s instant popularity attracted a sizable enough following to relegate her to the kitchen for safety’s sake. Still, Chen couldn’t be more pleased, even with a physical barrier separating her from her customers. The restaurant has renewed her sense of purpose and service: “I’m feeling grateful and overwhelmed,” she says. “I also feel very happy. I love to cook, so if everyone likes my food, that is the greatest happiness for me.”
While it’s unclear what a post-COVID world will look like, Chen and her family don’t anticipate moving away from their takeout-only business model once normalcy returns — whatever that means. With a fully stocked grocery store and a brisk to-go business, there’s no physical space for a dining room, and that’s more than okay.