SF Weekly devoted an issue to the Castro earlier this month, and since it hit ped-mounts around town, a bar and a restaurant with completely different personalities have come to our attention. Campy and fun, Papi Rico is a Mexican spot with boozy frozen cocktails and a genital-heavy decor, while INDO is the second location of a well-appreciated Palo Alto Indonesian restaurant whose walls have a geometric pattern that seems to disappear and reappear in the low light. It’s a lot of gray, but at least the curvature of the space is apparent — an indicator of subtlety that carries throughout.
In short, Papi Rico is where you take someone you want to bang. INDO is where you take someone you want to impress.
Moreover, there’s nothing like it in the vacancy-plagued Castro. The former Mekong Kitchen on 18th Street has been newly opened up, without a point-of-service system up front. The transformation is low-key, possibly because INDO is dark and subdued, but it is profound. Now, instead of $8.95 bowls of phở, there are $30 entrees by chef Diana Anwar, and nearly all of them excellent — small plates, too. And in spite of the name, it’s not exclusively the cuisine of Jakarta or even the sprawling archipelago of Indonesia. INDO reaches farther afield, in a pan-Indian Ocean kind of way.
Open things up with an order of martabak ($11), a Yemeni version of samosas with yellow curry dip that are almost like little, triangular beef Wellingtons. They’re well-structured, with ultraviolet pickled onions for multiple forms of contrast. A green papaya salad ($8), like a heap of juicy julienned vegetables, tasted a lot like mango dosed with extra fermented heat. Although lemongrass and a lime vinaigrette were listed as ingredients, citrus notes were a minor factor, but the fruity crunch is a nice counterpart to the martabak’s richness.
The large plates are cleanly divided into land and sea, plus extra greens and noodles sections, and there’s a clear standout in each category. Among the noodles, the $16 kway teow — or strips of ricecake found in all the Southeast Asian countries around the Straits of Malacca — bobbed to the top because of the presence of fishcake and spicy ketjap manis sauce, thatched with the usual roof of cilantro and bean sprouts. (Bonus points if you can figure out which American condiment the fish sauce ketjap lends is name to.) Mie goreng, a spicy noodle dish with shrimp and potatoes ($11) is another strong contender — but it’s best not to dither too long in noodle-land.
Anwar’s seafood green curry ($29) contains essentially the same ingredients as that found at most takeout places: shrimp, squid, mussels, and eggplant. It’s the hybrid curry, though, that makes it. Halfway between a broth and a cream sauce, it seems to anticipate the bountiful shellfish’s salty tendencies with a welcoming sweetness. You might find yourself souring on your neighborhood favorite, or relegating it to the order-some-when-you-have-a-cold zone.
The duck kapitan ($30) was the most intriguing, a Francophone maple-leaf duck-leg confit with a creamy kaffir-lime sauce. Anwar’s default is to provide something light, green, and snappily dressed in the presence of a heavier sauce — it’s arugula in this case — and while I would have liked a crispier skin on the duck, it had absorbed a golden ratio of dark sweetness to tang. I can see something like this being a letdown for people who presume something ragingly “exotic” might arrive, but it’s a great anchor to a meal. Regrettably, if you’re charging $30 for an entree, servers should have a greater facility in recommending a wine pairing without having to summon a colleague for help. But INDO’s competence snaps right back into action over dessert in the form of kueh nagasari, a mung-bean-and-coconut pudding with banana brulée ($9) and an exquisitely fine-grained texture. Why not do the colonizers’ continent better than they can? Way to go, Castro.
INDO, 4039 18th St., 415-346-9700 or indorestaurant.com