Nature's lunch box: a banana leaf holds spicy Indonesian feast

Nasi bungkus, a banana leaf package wrapped round beef rendang, rice and jackfruit, from Sky Cafe. Craig LaBan/Staff

It takes a little determined exploration to find the new home of Sky Cafe, the South Philly Indonesian BYOB that had to move after its original location on the 1500 block of West Ritner Street burned down in late 2015. Its new spot isn’t visible from the street when you pull into the chaotic parking lot of Wing Phat Plaza at 11th and Washington. But step just inside the corridor of this Asian food shopping complex, where it occupies a glassed-in bay, and trust me when I say it’s worth it. Co-owner Betty Yu and her mom, Lily Tjia, are cooking all the same aromatic specialties they were serving when I first reviewed their restaurant in 2012, their menu influenced by the regional Sumatran flavors that result in exceptional handmade noodle soups, a frequent embrace of pork (unlike the rest of Indonesia, which is Muslim), and Chinese-influenced flavor profiles that tend to be spicier and less sweet than regions like Java, which inform other local Indonesian kitchens at Hardena and Lil’ Java. One of the newer highlights is a portable version of the multi-dish “rice table” called nasi bungkus, an entire meal of jasmine rice, vegetables, and curried meat stew wrapped to-go inside a banana leaf bundle. We chose beef rendang as the filling for ours (a spicier beef curry is another choice). A hunk of tender beef, true to drier Sumatran style, vibrant with galangal, lemongrass, chilies, and kaffir lime, was embedded in a mound of jasmine rice, along with a feast of other flavors. Meaty young jackfruit braised in coconut curry. Steamed collard greens. A hardboiled “curry egg.” And then there was a little sandwich of two cucumber rounds, which appeared to be a quenching respite … until I took a fire-stoking bite and discovered a high-voltage green chili sambal inside. “Indonesians eat pretty much everything with chilies,” Yu told me, after the fact. No matter. For $8, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better value for flavor in town. And the added bonus? Banana leaves are microwave-safe, so, once you’ve found this hidden gem inside a South Philly mall, you can take your bungkus to go.

— Craig LaBan

Nasi bungkus, $8, Sky Cafe, Wing Phat Plaza, 1122-38 Washington Ave., 215-271-1983; skycafephilly.com