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Indonesian food connection drives Blue Toba

You can’t really describe Indonesian food as a single cuisine, but rather one that reflects the diversity and richness of cultures and traditions in the sprawling archipelago nation of more than 18,000 islands and a population of 255 million.

Those traditions are reflected in the menu of Blue Toba, an Ashland restaurant offering an authentic Indonesian culinary experience.

What started as a food truck in 2013 is now a small service counter restaurant in a storefront at 1690 Ashland St. next to Pronto Print. Owners Birong Hutabarat and his wife, Leslie Caplan, have built a loyal following over the past five years.

Dining space is limited, resulting in a busy takeout business.

Each dish is made from scratch with spices hand-picked from Indonesian fresh markets. Other ingredients include organic rice and vegetables, sprouted tofu, hormone/steroid-free chicken, and free-range, grass-fed beef.

Hutabarat, known as “Chef B” by regulars, gets shipments of spices and chilis from his brother in Indonesia. Chef B also visits his homeland regularly to gather new recipes and stock up on supplies.

The restaurant’s name comes from Lake Toba in North Sumatra. Chef B hails from the region, where many of the restaurant’s recipes originated.

The authenticity of Blue Toba’s dishes is all about the spices, which reveal themselves in subtle layers of flavor. Spicy hot is certainly available on some of the dishes, but many of the choices are on the milder side, with a complexity that can make the taste buds dance.

On a recent visit, I picked up takeout lunch orders for Karen and me, both on the cooler side of the spicy spectrum.

Karen had opor with chicken, a mild candlenut curry dish, for $13. It’s also available with tofu. Candlenut is an Asian nut similar to the macadamia and is used as a thickener and texture enhancer in curry pastes.

Karen enjoyed the earthy, creamy flavor of the coconut milk sauce with notes of Indonesian cinnamon, clove and lemongrass. The tender crisp vegetables were a nice bite. It was served with lime leaf rice, golden with the added turmeric. She shared a bite with me, and I wanted more.

When celebrity chef Guy Fieri featured Blue Toba on his TV show “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” in the fall of 2018, he raved about the opor and its depth of flavor.

My lunch choice was mie goreng, lightly fried noodles in a delicious sauce with organic vegetables for $11.50. The options were mild, medium or spicy. I chose mild, but it still had a nice kick.

Blue Toba’s portions are large. We zapped the lunch leftovers in the microwave for dinner that night, providing another opportunity for me to share (steal) more of Karen’s lime leaf rice. The dishes were just as delicious reheated.

Blue Toba’s popular specialty is rendang, a spicy red meat Indonesian dish whose popularity has spread to the cuisines of neighboring Southeast Asian countries. It’s often served at ceremonial occasions and to honor guests during festive events. When you order it, you’ll celebrate the wow factor.

Chef B’s version, for $14, is slow-cooked, spicy beef with a dried curry, stewed and tended to for five hours in coconut milk. Ramping up the flavor profile are lemongrass, galangal and a secret mix of Indonesian spices. Galangal is a distant cousin of ginger but tastes much different. It’s more piney and sharp, with a strong citrus scent. The dish is served with coconut, turmeric, lime leaf rice and organic veggies.

Blue Toba’s rendang has garnered its share of five-star reviews on sites such as Yelp, Trip Advisor and Facebook, with many mentioning how succulent and tender the braised beef is.

Urap ($11) is a great choice as a side or a lighter meal in itself. It’s a beautiful warm salad of organic spinach, green beans and sprouts in a coconut, candlenut, aromatic ginger sauce, served with coconut, turmeric and lime leaf rice. You can order it without rice for $7 or pay $13.50 and add chicken or tofu.

On another visit, I tried the nasi goreng ($11.50), a flavorful Indonesian fried rice. The chef starts with the house rice — coconut rice with organic basmati, turmeric and lemongrass. It’s lightly fried in a blend of Balinese spices and served with cooked-to-crisp veggies and chicken or tofu. Yummy doesn’t seem like a big enough word.

There are 10 main dishes on the menu, ranging from $11 to $14. Among them are several curries, grilled chicken thighs prepared two ways, and a Balinese satay of marinated pork and beef on skewers.

Three sides are available: house rice for $4, large veggies for $5, and small veggies for $3.

If you’re trying the restaurant for the first time, feel free to ask the chef or staff for advice. They are happy to help.

Many small, specialty restaurants have been described as “best-kept secrets,” but the word is out that Blue Toba is the real deal when it comes to authentic Indonesian cuisine. When a restaurant delivers consistently on quality and flavor at an affordable price, who would want to keep that a secret?

Blue Toba is open from 11:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Grab a takeout menu when you’re there, and you can call your order ahead next time at 541-708-6214.

Jim Flint is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.

Birong "Chef B" Hutabarat prepares an order to-go in the Blue Toba kitchen. There are a few tables for inside dining, but a big part of the business is takeout. Courtesy photo.
These ingredients are what give Blue Toba's curry sauces their mouth-watering, rich and spicy flavors. Among them are Indonesian red chilis, lemongrass, cinnamon sticks, lime leaves, ginger, coriander, cumin and asam kandis, a small, black, dried fruit. Courtesy photo.