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Leni Kumala and her husband Welly Effendi didn’t plan on opening an Indonesian restaurant when they first came to Los Angeles from their home country. When Simpang Asia first opened in 2002, it was a small grocery store in Palms selling Indonesian products. Leni and Welly live in Palms, and they noted that there was nowhere to get these items without going to the San Gabriel Valley. These days, Simpang Asia is a full service restaurant with two locations in LA and is one of the most popular places in the city to get Indonesian food.

I sat down over a meal with owner Leni Kumala to hear about how Simpang Asia first started. I ordered the grilled tilapia with soy garlic sauce and Leni suggested we get cah kangkung (stir fried water spinach with garlic belacan sauce). “It goes very well with the fish,” Leni noted.

Leni began to tell the story about how Simpang Asia slowly made the shift into a restaurant. A couple of years after opening Simpang Asia as a grocery store, a few Indonesian home cooks had asked Leni and Welly to sell some of their prepared foods at the store, but the health department soon shut it down since Simpang Asia had no kitchen. The incident prompted them to rent out the kitchen at the bakery next door. The bakery was only using the kitchen in the morning, so Simpang Asia started to cook and sell a simple takeout menu at lunch using Welly’s recipes. When the bakery closed in 2005, Leni and Welly decided to take over the space and opened a small cafe while still operating the grocery store.

In those days, the now-shuttered Ramayani and Indo Cafe were the only other places to get Indonesian food outside of SGV, and they were a little more expensive, with more of an old-fashioned vibe. “We noticed our customers were mostly students, so we decided to go that route,” said Lenny on their decision to make Simpang Asia more affordable with a casual environment that would attract the younger crowds. It worked. Simpang Asia became popular with Indonesian students attending UCLA and Santa Monica College, including yours truly.

I remember devouring rice combos in styrofoam takeout containers brought back to my dorms, or getting a whole fried fish with rice when a friend with a car offered to drive to the cafe. Nasi bungkus – a rice dish with beef rendang, chicken curry, egg sambal, and vegetable curry all wrapped up in banana leaf that adds a special aroma – has been one of their signature items since the early days of the cafe.

Jakarta-born Jenny Widjaja moved to the Los Angeles area in 2004, and she remembered going to Simpang Asia for the first time in 2005 when she was taking classes at nearby UCLA Extension after fellow students told her about it. Other than the nasi bungkus, Jenny really liked getting the extra spicy fried rice called nasi goreng jagger. “It was so spicy, every time I ate it I couldn’t even finish it, but I still kept ordering it because it was so good,”  she said. (Rest assured, most of Simpang Asia’s dishes are not nearly as spicy as this one!).

As Leni and Welly expanded the kitchen, their menu expanded, too. The current menu showcases the various influences on Indonesian cuisine – a fascinating glimpse into the country’s history, if you know what to look for. There are Chinese-Indonesian staples such as kwetiaw goreng (stir fried flat rice noodles), Arabic-influenced street food like martabak, and a comforting oxtail soup brought to Indonesia by Europeans during the colonial era. All of these dishes are commonly eaten in Indonesia to this day. Of course, there are also traditional Indonesian plates like nasi kuning, a celebratory yellow turmeric rice dish served with chicken sate, stir fried noodles, and more.

Since the cafe originally catered to Indonesian students, quite a few dishes were inspired by the street food that students in Indonesia eat with friends after school. Snacks like siomay bandung (steamed shrimp and chicken dumplings with tofu and egg served in a peanut sauce) and bakso (a beef meatball soup) are sold on street carts near high schools and colleges throughout Indonesia, and Simpang Asia turned into the go-to for Indonesian college kids in L.A., a gathering place filled with nostalgic food.

Over the years, Asian groceries have been made more widely available at mainstream grocery stores and online, and more Asian markets opened in the surrounding neighborhoods. The staple instant noodles, Indomie, can now be found on Amazon and even at Ralph’s. The demand for Simpang Asia’s groceries dwindled, so a few years ago they decided to close down the grocery section, and focused solely on the restaurant, even getting halal certification for it. They opened a second location in Venice at the end of 2020, initially choosing the location for its proximity to Palms. They thought they would primarily use the second location to help prep during busy dinner service and run food to the original location, but soon the Venice location became just as busy.

Although Indonesian cuisine has gotten more exposure lately in Los Angeles, there are still only a handful of places to get Indonesian food in the city – and a couple of them have closed due to the pandemic. Simpang Asia has come a long way from its early days as a tiny market – according to the owners, their current customers are 60% non-Asians, a big change from the early days when the customer pool was composed of 95% Indonesians. Leni and Welly didn’t change the menu much, though, still maintaining the flavors of home and introducing the breadth of Indonesian cuisine to more and more Angelenos.

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Fiona Chandra

Published on June 17, 2022

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