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.