Using lots of exotic spices you've never tasted before, an Ashland couple has opened up the first Indonesian restaurant in the valley, one that's organic, on wheels and is making the rounds at growers markets.
Called Blue Toba, the kitchen-in-a-truck is named for the super volcano and lake where chef Birong Hutabarat grew up in Sumatra, before he emigrated for business studies at Southern Oregon University in 1985.
How was the first day, at Ashland's Growers and Crafters Market Tuesday? Let's just say the line never stopped and, when customers could pause between big bites to comment, they thought it was a "10" on the tasty scale.
"Just perfect. Spicy, but not overly spicy, with a little sweetness," said Nicole Gutrick, tasting her mie goreng, a mix of tofu, peas in pod, sprouts and carrots.
Munching opor ayam, a nonspicy chicken curry with shallots, garlic and anise, her friend Anne Connor said, "Delicious subtle flavors in the sauce." She and others said the cuisine seems a cousin to Thai, but in its own boat.
"It has a richness of spice and aroma," says Dean Crawford, seated in folding chairs in front of the truck. "You take a bite and feel the unique flavors come alive."
"It's way beyond my expectations — so glad they're here," said Mary Ann Ingram.
A spicy, tender beef dish called rendang sold out in two hours, says Leslie Caplan, wife of Birong, noting it was voted the favorite dish in the world in a 2011 CNN poll.
"It's Birong's specialty," says Caplan, who lived in Bali for eight years. It's slow-cooked for six hours in seven spices, including ginger, lemon grass, chili and garlic. On regular trips to Indonesia, the couple brings back an array of unusual spices not to be found in America, she says.
"It's all from scratch. Indonesian cuisine is very delicious but relatively unknown, since few people travel there. A lot of people are afraid when they travel and don't try it."
The first day, says Birong, was "amazing, really good for us. We served 70 people over three-and-a-half hours."
Georgene Crowe said the food is "incredible, amazing, every dish so different. You have 500 islands in Indonesia and you get a lot of different spices from them. I love to put it in my mouth and savor all the tastes. My daughter is a vegetarian but when she smelled the rendang, she had to eat the whole plate."
Other popular dishes include nasi campur, which has "a taste of almost everything from Indonesia," says Caplan, including rendang, chicken curry, fried noodles and veggies. Gulai is spicy curry with herbs and dried sour fruit, with turmeric, cocoanut and lime leaf rice. Mie goreng is lightly fried noodles with veggies and a special sauce.
They use Painted Hills hormone-free beef, smart chicken and local, organic veggies.
"For years we dreamed of bringing the cultural depth and experience of Indonesia to Ashland, merging the most beautiful parts of our love for Indonesia to those in the valley," said Caplan in a promotional piece. "After years of hard work ... here we are, bringing two worlds, from polar opposite hemispheres, together into a true blue cultural culinary experience on wheels."
In addition to Ashland's Tuesday market, the couple will serve meals at Medford's Grower's Market on Saturdays and the Talent Evening Market on Fridays. They also cater parties and events.
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.