487 Elizabeth St Melbourne, VIC 3000
|Opening hours||Daily 11am-9pm|
|Prices||Cheap (mains under $20)|
|Phone||03 9078 3838|
Despite being from Cambodia, Ian Mok did not want to open a Cambodian restaurant. Mok came to Australia in 1984 and worked as a baker for many years. When he finally got the chance to open his own restaurant, he opted to serve Indonesian food. Why? "I like Indonesian food," he says. "And I have an interest in halal cooking."
So Mok hired an Indonesian chef and Indonesian staff and began learning to cook Indonesian food. That was a little under two years ago, in June 2016. These days, while his kitchen staff is still made up of Indonesian cooks, Mok also cooks most days. And he's proud of his food. "People come from all over to eat my nasi goreng," he says.
Pondok Rempah sits on a crowded strip of Elizabeth Street restaurants, in the blocks that buffer the Vic Markets. It's easy to miss the small, unassuming restaurant amid the throngs of students lining up for Malaysian food, shopfronts with women rolling out dough for borek, and random sushi/noodle/dumpling operations.
Mok says that while his clientele is partially made up of Indonesians looking for a taste of home, the people who come through the door are as varied as the surrounding businesses. "Many Malaysians," he says. "And the Chinese students love our oxtail soup."
But the most common order is the chicken, which comes with shatteringly crisp skin and a mound of rice and in a number of preparations. Order the ayam cabe ijo (which you may only see listed on a printed piece of paper stuck to the front counter) and be rewarded with a generous serving of chicken smothered in a blazingly spicy green chilli relish, powerfully fragrant and delicious.
There are, of course, stir-fries and curries and gado gado and some lovely beef ball noodle soups that warm in the same way pho does. (And the Chinese students are not wrong about that oxtail soup.) But the chicken is the best reason to stop by.
While you're waiting for your chicken, it's worth getting an order of tahu isi, the Indonesian street food snack of crisp deep-fried tofu squares, stuffed with vegetables and served with chilli sauce. And if you miss those avocado milkshakes from your last trip to Bali, they have those here as well.
Perhaps the best thing about Pondok Rempah is the atmosphere of the place, and I'm not talking about the basic furnishings. This is one of Melbourne's most multicultural rooms, both in terms of the staff and the customers. The women behind the counter chatter with the cooks, and there seems to be a family feeling among them all, despite the fact that they are obviously not related. It's fitting for a restaurant that is built on one Cambodian Australian's fondness for halal Indonesian food.
Go-to Dish: Ayam cabe ijo (fried chicken with green chilli), $12.80; tahu isi (stuffed tofu), $6 for three.