One of the bigger restaurant myths is that the recipes are from Mom or that Mom’s in the kitchen. What the chef (usually) really means when they say the recipes were adapted from mom is, “Mom’s meatballs were desiccated golf balls. I went to culinary school and now I make mine with three different meats, soak the organic breadcrumbs in organic milk and simmer them in hand-squeezed tomato sauce.” Given that, it makes it all that more extraordinary that at Rickshaw Republic, a new Indonesian restaurant in Lincoln Park, mom — Elice Setiawan — really is in the kitchen — and she’s rockin’ it.
Whether or not she likes the gig, only she knows. But I know that I love what she’s doing. Her babi kecap (which comes from the separate menu dubbed, of course, “Mommy Special”) is a swampy, rich primordial ooze of sweet soy, thick hunks of pork belly and tangy, earthy shiitake mushrooms.
Her Rickshaw fried chicken — crisp fried Brian Urlacher-sized chicken wings — are lacquered in a gooey brown suger and ginger sauce flecked with fiery red chili. They may be the best wings in Chicago, and if they’re not, they’re neck and neck with my favorites served at Lake View’s Crisp. The only downside is that the sauce is so sticky, it coats every part of your face and hands.
Setiawan’s martabak, Indonesia’s answer to the Hot Pocket, is a mahogany-fried crisp pastry stuffed with custardy egg, rich beef and caramelized onion. Dipped in the sweet vinegary cucumber salad, it’s a beautiful balance of richness cut by bright, lifting acidity.
The batagor, a heaping mound of crispy tofu dripping in rich peanut sauce is so good, I consider going vegan. But I think better of that as I dip in to the flaky-fried fish and shrimp dumplings accompanying that beautiful bean curd.
The nasi lemak, a volcano-shaped mound of coconut rice dressed with fried anchovies, glistening oil-soaked, but crisp peanuts, curried pickles and coconut-curry dripping beef rendang, is a diminutive version of the family-style platters often served on festive Indonesian occasions.
I know this because Tommy (Setiawan’s husband), a retired doctor, holds court behind the bar discussing Indonesian culinary rituals with the reverence of a shaman. He also pulls out laminated maps to show where he grew up near Jakarta and to hail the beauties of Bali. He tells stories of and takes great pride in the fact of President Obama’s childhood in his homeland. Tommy’s an incredibly warm gregarious presence.
But make no mistake, this is his son Oscar’s show. Trained as an engineer, but growing bored behind a desk, Oscar dreamed of a career that would satisfy his inner foodie and his passion for photography. The best move Oscar made was hiring local designer Suhail to create the dreamland that is the Rickshaw Republic dining room. Located in a landmarked Adler & Sullivan building, ornamented with some of Louis Sullivan’s first experimental friezes, you might spend so much time marveling over the exterior, that you never go inside. But when you do, you’re enveloped in a world of intricate wood-cut panels, twirling Chinese umbrellas and a million-man march of ceiling-mounted marionettes.
Most of Suhail’s best work has disappeared to the caprice of the fickle restaurant industry. The whirling mosaic of tile he constructed at Del Toro, the futuristic landscape of Mod and the neo-modern Turkish stylings of Tizi Melloul, all fell under the wrecking sledgehammer when those restaurants closed. Because Rickshaw Republic is so good, I pray, hope and believe his work here will be around for a while.
RICKSHAW REPUBLIC ★★★
2312 N. Lincoln; (773) 697-4750; www.rickshawrepublic.com
This article first appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times in a different form.