Sky Cafe promised to be a South Philly hidden gem. The Uber dropped me off in a crowded South Philly strip mall with a mix of Vietnamese, Indonesian, and other Asian small businesses lined up along the block. I had to double–check I had the right address because the restaurant was hidden behind the posters and signs covering every square inch of the outside facade. The area is home to a strong and diverse Asian American community, furthering my excitement that Sky Cafe would be an authentic dining experience.
Sky Cafe, a restaurant specializing in Indonesian cuisine, is a narrow eatery with no more than ten tables beside the store wall. Immediately after entering, we are greeted by a glass mirror wall proudly displaying various facts about Indonesia. The one I immediately notice reads, “Indonesia is made up of 17,000+ islands,” while wall speakers quietly play American pop and club remixes in the background.
I arrive hungry and curious, completely unacquainted with Indonesian cuisine but eager to change that. Ahead of the tables, a glass display countertop with a cash register supports a stack of paper menus. Sky Cafe’s menu is split into two main sections: rice and noodle dishes. The lineup contains a mix of familiar dishes that are reflective of the Chinese, Indian, Thai, and Vietnamese influences that are present in Indonesian cuisine, as well as a selection of uniquely Indonesian dishes I have yet to try. The server suggests we start off with an appetizer of chicken fried wontons to share, and we gladly take her advice.
The wontons are a terrific starter, stuffed with seasoned ground chicken in a flaky fried wonton skin. Accompanied by a sweet and sour sauce that nicely complements the savory dish, the seven–piece portion size is more than enough to get the meal started.
For the entree, we take another recommendation of the server, who adeptly suggests around our dietary restrictions—namely a severe nut allergy. We receive an order of the marinated barbecued beef ribs and veggie curry as our main courses.
The beef ribs visibly attract the attention of all the patrons around us when they're brought to our table. Served steaming hot and covered in a thick, sticky glaze, the hefty portion of dark, juicy meat is piled on a bed of lettuce. The flavor of the ribs is intensely smoky and sweet, clearly indicating that the meat has been marinating long before cooking. The ribs are also served alongside a tomato cucumber salad, a simple–but–hearty veggie soup, and two spicy Indonesian condiments called sambal bajak, a blend of chilis, sugar, and other spices, and acar kuning, a spicy cured vegetable salad. Chili seeds and chili paste are clearly central ingredients in both the accompaniments, which are meant to pair with the sweet ribs.
The veggie curry is served with white jasmine rice, a tomato cucumber salad, crispy crackers made of tapioca flour, a boiled egg with chili paste, and sambal goreng—a traditional Indonesian side dish made of fried tempeh and vegetables coated in a chili paste. The curry has a strong coconut and ginger aroma, brimming with carrots and green beans. The egg is slightly overcooked, but pairs nicely with the flavorful chili paste on top.
The clear star of the show is the sambal goreng, which has a rich flavor profile: a subtle sweetness followed by a strong spiciness that causes me, a usually high spice–tolerant diner, to seek refuge in cold water. Both of the meals we order consist of mild entrees with spicy condiments and side dishes for spice–seekers. I later learned that a common theme in Indonesian cuisine is to have a spicy option available with each meal.
In just one visit, it’s impossible to judge a restaurant with an extensive menu like Sky Cafe, but it was an impressive introduction into Indonesian cuisine that didn’t disappoint. Other patrons were a mix of regulars who didn’t need to see a menu and adventurous newcomers relying on server recommendations, a strong indication of the word of mouth that brought people from across the city to try the Indonesian dishes that the restaurant has to offer. For the price and portion size, Sky Cafe is an authentic establishment for diners looking to broaden their culinary horizons on a budget.