Even after almost a decade in business, Upi Jaya’s owner and namesake can still be found in the kitchen, turning out the spicy Sumatran fare of her native Padang. Her cooking reputedly compares favorably with versions of the same dishes procured in Indonesia.
It’s not surprising, then, that we had high hopes for our meal at the much-loved Elmhurst, Queens, Indonesian eatery. But when we paused to reload our plates after descending enthusiastically on the array of beef, lamb, chicken and vegetable dishes we ordered on a recent visit, the general consensus at the table was disappointment.
It’s not that the food wasn’t good—it was undeniably tasty. But dish after dish featured coconut-infused, yellow-hued sauces that, as far as we could tell, employed the same one-two-three combo of turmeric, red chili and coconut milk. These dishes lacked complexity and were so similar that we struggled to taste any difference between them.
The three chicken dishes we tried—ayam gulai (curried chicken cooked in coconut milk, red chili and turmeric), ayam rendang (chicken cooked in coconut milk, ginger and lemongrass) and ayam panggang (Indonesian-style barbecued chicken)—were almost identical in flavor and appearance (except the barbecued chicken, which had a blackened exterior). Only after consulting with our server were we able to determine which was which. (Full disclosure: Your humble reviewer, a vegetarian, owes the “meaty” portions of this review to the careful descriptions provided by her carnivorous dining companions.)
The same spicy-sweet sauce made an appearance in two of the vegetarian dishes we tried, sayur nangka (young jackfruit cooked in a “lightly spiced curry”) and sayur daun singkon (kale cooked in coconut milk and spices).
The gulai kambing (traditional Indonesian lamb stew) was also coated with a doctored take on that coconut milk–based sauce, though this version had appealing cumin undertones.
Still, our lamb lover praised the meat for its tenderness, and everyone agreed that the chicken was quite good—crispy-skinned and juicy within. Unfortunately, the flavors of the soggy kale and the jackfruit were mostly drowned out by the creamy, coconut-based sauce.
The beef rendang (shredded beef simmered in spices) and gado gado (a medley of steamed vegetables tossed in a peanut sauce) offered a welcome change.
The beef rendang, easily the most popular dish at our table, was melt-in-your-mouth tender. The meat’s distinctive smoky, spicy flavor was uniquely delicious.
The gado gado combined bits of steamed but still crunchy green beans, cabbage and greens, sliced potato, cucumber, scallions, bean sprouts and fried crisps—all tossed in a lemony peanut sauce. However, the lemon, which had a distinctly artificial taste, dominated the peanut sauce.
We also tried two appetizers, pempek palembang (fish cakes, scallions and vermicelli noodles submerged in a hot-and-sour sauce) and tahu isi (fried tofu stuffed with vegetables).
The minced vegetables stuffed inside the two large cakes of fried tofu could have come from a fried egg roll at any Chinese-American takeout joint—they were heavy on cabbage and low on flavor. The fish cakes’ sauce was an appealing blend of salty, tangy and sweet flavors, but the fish cakes themselves had a squishy texture that was off-putting to many in our group.
The bill for our huge meal was ridiculously low—roughly $20 each—and we left happy on that count. Some of us were curious to come back for Upi Jaya’s weekend specials, nasi goring and mie goring (Indonesian fried rice and stir-fried noodles, respectively). Others were glad to have tried this Indonesian cooking institution once but were not impressed enough to return.
Upi Jaya, 76-04 Woodside Ave., Elmhurst, Queens, 718-458-1807