380 Little Bourke Street
Melbourne VIC 3000
+61 3 9600 2534
Growing up in an Indonesian household, I’ve been ‘hashtag blessed’ to come home to delicious home cooked Indonesian meals thanks to my mother. On winter evenings, there’d be crockpots of beef rendang, sayur asam and semur waiting for me as well as a rice cooker bursting with fluffy white rice to soak up all the liquids. During the summer, I was more likely to see satays and gado gado. Every now and then, my dad would even have a crack at nasi goreng (he’s actually pretty good).
Thus, it is no little wonder that I rarely go out for Indonesian food. Growing up in Melbourne, there weren’t many Indonesian restaurants around. And out of the few that were there, none served food good enough to command my mum’s attention or my dad’s wallet. Meanwhile in Sydney, good and authentic Indonesian restaurants can be found on Anzac Parade. I remember going on family road trips to Sydney when I was a kid; my parents insisted that they wanted to take us to see all sorts of Sydney sights but in reality, the real reason why they wanted to go to Sydney was to eat Indonesian food. In hindsight, I didn’t blame them. Sydney’s Indonesian food offerings were miles better than what Melbourne could provide.
In the late 90s though, everything changed. 1998 saw a lot of Indonesians, including a female cousin of mine, flee Jakarta and move to Melbourne. When things in Indonesia calmed down, many Indonesians returned; others stayed in Melbourne and opened up restaurants. These days, I still prefer eating Indonesian food at my folks’ house, but it’s also nice to have options if I’m out and about.
Blok M Express in the city is one such Indonesian restaurant that I’m happy to recommend. This diminutive eatery is named after Blok M, a vibrant district in South Jakarta that’s famous for its boutiques, restaurants and bars. Think Chapel Street in the 1990s when it was actually quite lively and nothing like the wasteland it is now. Blok M Express is cheap and cheerful, making it a popular lunch or dinner spot for international students and professionals working in the area. Its house specialties are grilled meat dishes, particularly their ayam bakar (Javanese char-grilled chicken). This particular dish is marinated in a spicy sauce comprising kecap manis and various spices including coriander, turmeric, galangal and tamarind juice. Of course, Blok M Express offers other Indonesian dishes too if you don’t feel like grilled meats.
The last time I visited was with my friends Aaron and Cathy after an afternoon at the NGV. It was late Sunday afternoon on a long weekend so there weren’t many dining options available to us, yet Blok M Express happened to be open. We walked in, ordered at the counter (cash only FYI) and shortly after, our dishes arrived.
Cathy ordered the gule kambing, an Indonesian lamb curry. The menu described it as a ‘special lamb curry cooked with tasty appealing spices’, I guess their lazy way of saying it’s cooked in coconut milk, cloves, cardamom pods, cloves, cinnamon, galangal and kaffir lime leaves amongst other things. The best thing about this dish is that it’s comforting and mild so if fiery hot dishes ain’t your thing, give this a try.
Aaron ordered the ayam campur (literally ‘mixed chicken’), which came with two pieces of ayam bakar along with some mixed vegetables, rice, sambal and oxtail soup. While I won’t give props to the limp vegetables and while the oxtail soup was laced with a lot of MSG, I have to say that the ayam bakar was very close to the one my mum makes at home – there was an excellent balance of spicy, sweet, smokiness and sourness.
I’m a sucker for soto ayam, Indonesian’s contribution to the world of chicken soup. It may not look as pretty as a bowl of pho thanks to the yellow hue provided by lots of turmeric but it’s soothing, delicious and sure to perk you off when you’re having a bit of an off day. To be honest, I’ve had better soto ayam elsewhere; I’m not saying it was bad but it lacked that depth and flavour that I’ve come to expect from a good soto ayam. Another thing: I’m not sure why they chose to use cheap faux Asian pink prawn crackers instead of the Indonesian prawn crackers which are 100 times better. If it was a cost thing, fair enough – but why not use Indonesian onion crackers? They’re inexpensive but would work much better than the pink stuff. I guess it was my fault for choosing a dish that Blok M Express isn’t known for but I had no regrets.
Even though my soto ayam wasn’t amazing, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Blok M Express to people wanting cheap and quick Indonesian food in the city. Definitely stick to menu specialities such as the bakar items and the gule though and you’ll walk out happy.