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."