Author & Photographer: Hsin Min Zee
Rickshaw Republic is one of the very few Indonesian restaurants in Chicago. As a homesick Singaporean, this restaurant has been on my to-go list for awhile -- lots of the food we have back at home are Indonesian, or at least share the same flavours you find in Indonesian food. It took about a year, but my roommate and I finally had dinner here a few weeks ago. You’d think that a Singaporean who misses the taste of home would more actively seek opportunities like these. What you might not understand is that us Singaporeans have been used to paying a certain (small) amount of money for a certain (high) quality of Southeast Asian food. It’s incredibly difficult to convince my Singaporean friends to pay up to four times more to eat food that they’d get at hawker centers at home, so it makes sense that the person to have this meal with me was my American roommate. Taking her certainly took some pressure off of this recommendation.
The restaurant is small but striking. There’s art everywhere. Puppets and umbrellas hang from the ceiling, and photographs, carved wood panels, and straw hats fill the walls. The decor was almost chaotic, but it gave us so much to be distracted by while waiting for our food.
Now, onto the first course.
Chicken Breast Satay
I have to admit that the moment I was served this dish my heart sunk a little, seeing how different the satay looked from, well, all the satays I’ve ever had. First, the satay was about three times wider than usual. It looked more like yakitori. Second, they were covered in fried onions and green onions. These are delicious condiments, but I don’t know if they belong on satay. Lastly, the peanut sauce that covered the dish was a far paler and smoother than what I’m used to having.
I was pretty open to having something that was apparently a twist on a Southeast Asian classic, but I was not a fan of how the flavours were so subtle that even ignoring what I expected it to taste like, it wasn’t very tasty. Maybe this was because they used chicken breast instead of chicken thigh and, it seems, did not marinate the meat. The meat was pretty tender and moist, but it tasted too plain -- there just wasn’t enough flavour for me.
These sweet and spicy, stir-fried noodles are a childhood favourite of mine. I haven’t had it for a very long time, so I was truly excited for this dish.
With this one, Rickshaw Republic really exceeded my expectations.
The dish had just the right amount of spiciness, and was sweet as Mee Goreng should be, but not overwhelmingly so as it sometimes could be. The texture of the noodles was brilliant. It was chewy, but still sufficiently soft. Frankly, it made the trip to this restaurant worth it for me.
I believe in the magic of good coconut rice. Nasi Lemak, a popular Malay breakfast dish, is basically just coconut rice and chili sauce, with small portions of anchovies, peanuts, and typically small fried fish on the side. But, what makes the dish amazing is the fragrance of the coconut rice and the chili sauce. So coming to Rickshaw Republic, I wanted to have some coconut rice because I missed the deep, almost milky richness of the coconut rice from back home.
Rickshaw Republic’s coconut rice did not totally live up to my expectations, but it was still delicious. Its flavours were more delicate than I expected, but it was still quite fragrant. I felt that this was fitting for a side that was to complement, rather than compete with the far more intense flavours of the main dishes offered.
Beef rendang is one of my favourite Indonesian/Malaysian dishes. Rickshaw Republic’s beef rendang was quite tender, and extremely flavourful. It was a little more gamey than usual -- the sauce typically overwhelms any such taste. The sauce was delicious, but I felt that it was not spicy enough. Some might prefer it this way, but it’s important to me that my beef rendang is spicy. Overall, it was a decent dish, but I’d give other dishes a shot if I were you.