407 Camino del Rio South, Mission Valley
Bali Thai Café just celebrated its first anniversary. That makes it an exception to the very short shelf life of most Indonesian restaurants in California, which typically open with bare-bones budgets and go under before they've found their "audience." Bali Thai has beaten the jinx by luck and by smarts.
Indonesian cuisine is intriguingly exotic, but it's never been as popular as Thai and Vietnamese cooking. Relatively few Americans have visited beautiful Bali, compared with the numbers of servicemen who came home from Vietnam with a newfound taste for the dishes they'd enjoyed on R&R in Bangkok or Saigon.
The luck is in the location. Admittedly, it's out of the way and hard to find, in a cul-de-sac office park across route 8 from Fashion Valley. Although it's just blocks from the fleshpots of Hillcrest, you can't get there from here except by looping around on route 8 and coming back west on Camino Del Rio. But the offices, hotels, and new luxury condos surrounding the restaurant offer a captive audience. The nearby competition consists of Benihana, El Torito, TGI Friday's -- and if I worked in the Crossroads Office Park, I'd be grateful to have a non-chain, ethnic alternative.
The smarts: The menu is half Indonesian, half Thai, attracting customers by offering a familiar cuisine alongside an exotic one. The chef-owner, Jim Chang, hails from Suriname, a former Dutch colony (like Indonesia) in the Guiana cluster of South America. He's been cooking Indonesian food since his teens, as has his Indonesian sous-chef. Balancing the mixture is a chef from Thailand. All three cross-train each other as they go.
Since Indonesian food is a rarity here, and since "Bali" comes before "Thai" in the restaurant's name, I concentrated on the former in my three visits. Among the Indonesian appetizers, corn fritters are a treat: They're puffy pancakes of fresh corn kernels, green onions, and egg held together by tempura batter. Called fricadelles dagoong in Indonesian, they're also common to Malaysia and to Thailand's southern peninsula. I tasted a Malay-Thai version two weeks ago at Lotus but prefer Bali Thai's lighter rendition. Another island dish, Tahu Goreng Isi, is a little challenging unless you love tofu: It consists of deep-fried, crisp-surfaced cakes of firm bean curd topped (not stuffed, Hakka-style) with a mound of ground pork and shrimp.
Don't miss the Soto Ayam, a chicken soup with a rich house-made broth colored golden with turmeric and flavored with lemongrass. In it float bean sprouts, sliced hard-boiled egg, chicken meat, and rice stick noodles. "Next time I have a cold, you gotta come down here and get me a quart of this stuff," I told my partner. "Better than Jewish chicken soup?" he asked. "Just as good," I said, "and more exciting."
Satays are popular throughout the South Pacific. Those served here are specifically Indonesian, their fragrant marinade whispering of cardamom. Cooked on a gas-fired grill topped with charcoal bricks, the chicken satay is delicious but the tender pork is even better. Each comes with a spicy red dipping sauce notable for an uncompromising blast of Thai fish sauce (nam pla), plus a peanut sauce that varies according to who's making it and how they feel that day. One evening, it was strongly flavored with palm sugar, garlic, and chili oil, with a cinnamon aftertaste; another evening, it held an up-front blast of cinnamon and no noticeable garlic. In any case, it's not your average mild-mannered peanut sauce.
Depending on whether Jim or his Thai chef is cooking, the Thai dishes often speak with a Balinese accent. They may be a little heavier and richer than what you'd typically eat in Thailand -- but they're also less Americanized than the dishes at most local Thai restaurants.
Case in point: Tom Kah Koong (a.k.a. Tom Kha Goong), coconut soup with shrimp. (Don't worry about the spellings on Thai menus. Thai's non-European alphabet is impossible to transliterate precisely, and the sounds vary, with [k], [kh], and [g] especially interchangeable.) Bali Thai's soup is rich and generous with thick coconut milk, plenty of large, juicy prawns, a scattering of mushrooms, and sliced onions -- but watch out! Unlike most Thai restaurants here, which strain the broth, at the bottom there's a tangle of fresh kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass stalks, and ginger and galanga slices. These are present to flavor the liquid, not to chew and swallow. (Consult Miss Manners for instructions on discreetly removing the roots and twigs should some bits sneak into your mouth.)
Green papaya salad is fancy, with whole cashews on top and separate heaps of shredded red cabbage, white cabbage, and carrots alongside, which you can mix in or not -- but I preferred the papaya part left intact. The secret, and it really is a secret, is the authentic addition of pounded dried shrimp and ground peanuts to the slightly spicy lime-juice dressing. Far too few San Diego Thai restaurants dare to use dried shrimp, and although they're invisible here, they lend depth to the flavor. Unfortunately, Bali Thai's tofu version of larb is the opposite of authentic. What you get is veggie sawdust overpowered by raw red onion. The alternative? Chicken sawdust larb overpowered by onion. Fuhgettaboudit, as we say in Phuket.
Some appetizers are neither Thai nor Indonesian but are the chefs' own inventions. Seafood Delight Rolls, hearty and forceful, are "inspired by" Thai cuisine. These are thick egg-roll wrappers stuffed with chunks of lump crab and shrimp, cellophane noodles, scallions, and a touch of hot chili. ("Of course we use real crab," chef Jim told me later. "If I used imitation crab I wouldn't call it Seafood Delight -- I'd call it Seafood Disgust.")
Crispy Calamari, by now a nonce dish from everywhere and nowhere, was a hit at my table one night. They live up to their title of crisp: The batter is thick but light, and the morsels stay crackly outside and tender within even as they cool. The sweet-sour dip complements them well. Firecracker shrimp are another house invention but a less successful one -- salty skewered grilled prawns wrapped in vast nests of deep-fried chow mein noodles. "A lot of people don't like all the noodles and mostly pull them off," said our waitress as she delivered the dish. We became some of those people.
Bali Thai serves numerous rice dishes from its two homelands. I was surprised that the menu doesn't offer rijstaffel, Indonesia's famed feast of rice surrounded by savory side dishes -- a regular choice at other Indonesian restaurants where I've eaten. It's an option here if you book the restaurant for a private party. But that's okay. The Spicy Basil Fried Rice is a Thai concoction with scrambled egg, mushrooms, white and green onions, ginger, a bit of jalapeño, and fresh basil that's fine on its own. There's more soy sauce in it than is typical of Thai fried rice, and I'd guess it's Indonesian sweet soy (ketjap manis). My partner loved it all the more for this reason; I found it heavy but tasty.
Its Indonesian cousin, the "national dish," is nasi goreng: Nasi means rice, and goreng means pan-fried. Often served for breakfast, the household version typically contains last night's rice and any bits left over from dinner, chopped up and sautéed together with seasonings and a scrambled egg. The deluxe version here, Nasi Goreng Bali Thai Café, is subtly flavored with shrimp paste -- yes! the real thing! -- and sweet soy. It comes with a hard-fried egg, chicken satay, and two large breast pieces of Ayam Goreng Kuning, deep-fried unbattered skin-on chicken marinated in turmeric and other spices. The heady seasonings penetrate into the flesh, while the surface is sprinkled with fried "crumbs" of blue ginger, regular ginger, and lemongrass that you're supposed to mix into the rice. Although faintly pink inside, the meat itself seemed dry -- just because it's breast. That's the cut Americans seem to prefer, but this dish would be moister if made with dark meat.
My favorite entrée was Sambal Goreng Udang -- one of Indonesia's best-known dishes, featuring prawns cooked in spicy-sweet red chili sauce. The sauce is a complex paste of coconut, onions, and red chilies, including seeds, lending just the right heat for this side of the Pacific -- about a 5 on a scale of 10. It sparks but neither blisters nor clings. Happily, the red chilies used aren't the red Fresno "Thai chile" variety that sometimes causes allergic reactions.
Balinese Fish Filet is another great dish. It's served daily but is best ordered Thursday night or Friday, when the seafood is freshly delivered. This dish is a delicate, crunchy take on fish 'n' chips, hold the chips -- filets of a mild-flavored species (halibut or sole), lightly battered and fried in fresh, hot oil to the point of tender translucency, then topped with a spoonful of spicy sambal sauce. Note that the kitchen fries in soybean oil, neutral-flavored and supposedly healthy but without the greasy mouth-feel of canola.
Oxtail stew is a newbie on the menu. "Do you know what oxtails are?" asked Agadha, the hostess, when we ordered it. She's evidently had people send it back when they discovered, upon tasting, that it's made from the actual tail of a bovine, a series of bony circles surrounded by rich, tender meat and fat. We knew -- it's a cut that takes so many hours of slow braising that I cook it only once every two years but order it whenever I see it on a restaurant menu. "It's our East meets West dish," says chef Jim, who invented it. It consists of long-stewed oxtails in a thick sauce of ginger, lemongrass, shallots, garlic, sautéed spice paste with lots of cinnamon -- and a touch of ketchup. The texture of the sauce is a little rough, the flavors complex. Portions are gigantic here, and this is a good candidate to doggy-bag, since the flavors improve overnight.
When you taste Bali Thai's Indonesian Coconut Chicken, you might think you're eating in an Indian restaurant. The skinless quarters are slowly sautéed with spices, then removed and fried, and finally sauced again with ground coconut, ginger, soy, and more spices. It has the powdery mouth-feel and the almost daunting complexity of many Indian curries.
One night, we lucked into a trial version of Ayang Kalasang -- fried chicken with palm sugar, spices, and coconut water -- made with chicken wings, instead of the breasts and thighs of the current entrée. This rendition may or may not make it onto the appetizer menu -- and I hope it does. The sauce is sweet, thick, and spicy -- very enticing. The wings have the advantage of staying moist no matter how they're cooked.
Most Asians don't eat dessert, and when they do it usually comes down to a few basic flavors. We jumped on "fried ice cream," in this case two huge balls tasting like Dreyer's grand vanilla, lightly coated with crumbs and fried to a crisp crust. We also enjoyed bananas melting in deep-fried wonton wrappers. Other choices include bananas fried in coconut and Mexican mangoes with sticky rice.
The restaurant is plain and tiny -- just 16 tables for four, including those on the heated patio -- so not every dish listed on the menu is available every day. But the kitchen delivers big flavors. Don't come here looking for standard Thai restaurant cooking. Instead, expect the unexpected.
ABOUT THE CHEF
"I'm from Suriname, in South America," says chef-owner Jim Chang, who often cordially waits tables between cooking stints in the kitchen. "I've been cooking since I was 11. I have family from Indonesia who used to own a small food shop, and I used to help them -- I was their prep chef, chopping stuff for them when I was a teenager.
"Actually, cooking is my hobby, then we put it into opening a restaurant. I came to California in 1993 as a student, and I was a strategic management major. I used to be a buyer, and I was in sales. But I really enjoyed working in the restaurant when I was younger, so my wife and I decided to open this one. We're in partnership with Agadha Hardiando, the hostess, who's from Java. My wife is an engineer and works up north, but sometimes she comes in and helps me on Saturday mornings." (One busy weekend evening, our waitress/bartendress Sara turned out to be another engineer from the same company, moonlighting for fun and to help her friends.)
"The owner of the office park we're in -- his company is named Recabarren Development Ranch -- he always wanted an eatery near his office space, besides the TGI Friday's and the other chains, so he leased the building to us."