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Blue Toba is a cultural experience

Indonesian food rolled into the Rogue Valley about a year ago with the Blue Toba food truck.

The native cuisine of chef-owner Birong Hutabarat found a home this month inside a tiny counter-service restaurant in the Ashland Shopping Center. Learning to cook from the “mamas” of the villages where he grew up, Hutabarat calls his endeavor, with wife and business partner, Leslie Caplan, a “cultural culinary experience.”

One of my favorite alternatives to mainstream fare in Ashland, Happy Falafel, formerly occupied the spot. Taking over for a short-lived burger joint, Blue Toba likewise should find plenty of fans in close proximity to Southern Oregon University and several other fast-casual eateries.

I’d tried Blue Toba at one of the local farmers markets when it was still a mobile outfit, and I appreciated the change of pace, if not the mildness of the curry I ordered. That dish, “opor,” made with Indonesian candlenuts, remains a menu mainstay, either with chicken or tofu with vegetables ($12) to complement the nuts that are likened to macadamias.

Craving something spicier this time, I selected the “gulai,” described as a spicy, curry-flavored dish with lemon grass, cloves, cinnamon and a dried, sour fruit in the mangosteen family. Served with turmeric-coconut-lime-leaf rice, that dish also costs $12.

My friend choose a “sweet and spicy” chicken dish featured on the specials board for $9.50. Other regular menu items include Hutabarat’s specialty: grass-fed beef slow-cooked in coconut milk with galangal, lemon grass and a blend of “magical” Indonesian spices ($13). Chicken grilled marinated in coconut milk and spices is priced at $12.

A stir-fry with cabbage, bok choy and other vegetables cooked in a lemon grass-ginger stock costs $11 with either chicken or tofu. A meal of lightly fried noodles with vegetables and chicken or tofu ($11) rounds out the menu, along with an omelet-like dish served with rice and cucumbers for $9.

For such a strong focus on spices, Blue Toba’s fare is subtle and should appeal to the uninitiated and anyone with a sensitive palate. Colored golden with turmeric, the rice is the restaurant’s most remarkable accomplishment, my friend and I agreed. The charge of $3 for a side is certainly warranted.

The rich, brown sauce on my friend’s plate tended to dominate the other flavors, he said. Yet he appreciated the dish’s ample portion of chicken, all dark meat.

I had hoped for more of a kick in Hutabarat’s spicy curry and may have detected it in a larger ladling of sauce. I suppose I could have asked for a side of sambal, Indonesia’s chili sauce, as the menu’s noodle dish suggests.

The organic tofu was nicely cooked, as were the tender-crisp, organic vegetables, mostly julienned carrots and red bell peppers, with a few broccoli florets for contrast. We would have welcomed a bit more variety in the mélange, my friend and I mused.

The complimentary lemon grass-cucumber water was a thoughtful touch, self-served in jelly jars, although plates and cutlery are disposable. The narrow dining room accommodates just 14 seats, including six at a long table that was seeing communal use on the day we dined. Outside are another dozen spots at picnic tables.

Blue Toba adds a 2.75-percent fee for payment with debit or credit cards. Located at 1690 Ashland St., the restaurant is open from 11:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Call 541-708-6214.

— Sarah Lemon

Blue Toba is a cultural experience