The sate is yummy and the noodles are to die for, but a visit to Padang that doesn't include a stop at a rumah makan (restaurant) for the city's most famous meal would akin to a culinary sacrilege. Nasi Padang (Padang-style rice), a miniature banquet of meats, fish, vegetables, and spicy sambals eaten with plain white rice, is Sumatra's most famous export (next to coffee, that is) and the Minangkabau's great contribution to Indonesian cuisine.
Nasi Padang is eaten all hours of the day, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner - it seems every block in this port city is graced with a nasi Padang restaurant advertising its fare in a multi-leveled window display. But all nasi Padang is, of course, not created equal. We found the best version of our Sumatran eat-about at small wooden restaurant painted an eye-catching shade of turquoise, on the edge of the city's tiny Chinatown.
In business at the same spot for over sixty years, Pagi Sore (lit. 'morning to evening') is run by the original owner's son Benny, with the help of wife. Each morning at five she fires up the burners and starts work on the day's dishes; late each afternoon she's back in the kitchen, cooking up another batch of treats for the evening rush. Pagi Sore's daily selection varies - like those of any other nasi Padang restaurant - according to what's good and fresh at the market.
As we enter the restaurant - hot, sweaty, and hungry from a morning wandering the maze-like aisles of Padang's central market - a waiter begins filling small plates from the enameled metal bowls on display in a glass case by a front window. In less than three minutes our table is crowded with a mind-boggling array of gorgeous, tempting fare. Food continues to arrive for another five minutes, as sold-out items from the display are replenished with stock from the kitchen. When the dust settles and a candle has been placed between the plates to keep flies away, we're left to stare down - and decide between - fourteen dishes plus four 'sides' (sliced raw cucumber, a simple sambal made from fresh red chilies ground with salt to a rough paste, large round crackers of rice flour and beef skin, and kerisik - dry-fried grated coconut).
Nasi Padang is an at-your-table, by-the-plate buffet - you pay only for dishes you've eaten from (some establishments allow diners to taste a dish's sauce without charge). Therein lies the pleasure and the pain, the ecstasy and the agony. Diners like us, not lucky enough to be part of a large group, will rarely have the opportunity to partake of all the bounty that any one restaurant offers. (When we have it to do over again, we'll simply decide at the outset to pay for every single dish and sample each without agonizing.)
A typical spread includes dishes that fall into five general categories: rendang (long-simmered, over low heat, in coconut milk, chile, and spices until the coconut oil separates and caramelizes); kalio (similar to rendang, but cooked only long enough for the sauce to partially reduce); panggang (grilled); belado (meat or vegetables spread with chopped, cooked red or green chilies); and gulai (lookalike but individually flavored thin, coconut milk-based stews that have been cooked for only a short amount of time). A deep-fried dish or two and a plainly prepared vegetable are also often part of the selection.
Before our trip we read about - and resolved to follow - the Indonesian method of attack: choose at least one dish from each category, balance it with ulam (raw vegetables), and make it your own by seasoning with kerisik and sambal. But time and time again, faced with the choice offered in nasi Padang restaurants, our resolve has shattered like a prawn cracker fresh out of the fryer.
It's no different at Pagi Sore. Once our feast is complete we move in with forks and spoons (we haven't mastered eating our nasi with right hands, as the locals do), guided only by our appetites.
Pergedel (4th photo, upper left corner) - golden potato croquettes the size and shape of flattened tennis balls, wrapped in crispy tofu skin - are surprisingly light, given their size, and scented with a whisper of nutmeg. For a belado, eggplant are split lengthwise, deep-fried, and topped with a thick layer of red chilies and onions sauteed together. The vegetable 'fillets' are spoon-soft and, inside, creamy and smooth as custard. We swoon over a sourish, not-too-spicy gulai of soft cabbage and meaty green beans thick as magic markers, and fall in love with jengkol ('jering' in bahasa Melayu), a yellowish silver dollar-sized seed-nut with a texture and taste reminiscent of chestnuts; it's the perfect, flavor-absorbent main ingredient of a turmeric-seasoned, numbingly spicy gulai. Sturdy and pleasantly bitter sayur kongis (cassava greens) - boiled, squeezed dry, and mixed with mild green chilies and kalamansi juice - are a sprightly counterpoint to the coconut milk oiliness of the other dishes.
One taste of Pagi Sore's beef rendang and I know that it will forever be the standard against which I'll judge all rendangs. Cooked in coconut milk and spices like nutmeg, cinammon, cardamom, and coriander seeds for more than ten hours, the slightly chewy meat has absorbed flavor and fragrance to the very core of its molecules. It's coated with blondo (the cooked-down coconut milk and spices) thick and dark as a classic Oaxacan mole; the oily residue is breathtakkingly complex and a little sweet, with hints of chocolate and coffee.
Kacang rendang, a long-cooked coconuty stew of petai ('stink' beans) and small white beans, is a surprise, mostly because I love it even though I've never been a stink bean fan. Here, the stench of the bean is nicely balanced by the heat of chilies and the mellowness of the white beans. Dave's not swayed, so I find myself, for the first time in years of southeast Asian eating, willingly spooning up stink bean after stink bean, until the saucer is clean.
We put down our spoons and forks, sated but saddened by the sight of the foods we just haven't the room in our tummies to try: dendang (thin sheets of dried beef, fried and smothered in red chilies); chicken gulai and chicken deep-fried; fish fillets in a pinkish 'white' curry made with candlenuts and coconut milk; petai sambal (stink beans again, fried with red chili sambal heavy on the trassi, or Indonesian shrimp paste); a whole freshwater fish marinated in coconut milk and chilies and grilled over coconut husks; and a small, whole ocean fish in white curry with chunks of fresh tofu and long green chilies.
Throughout our meal we've been serenaded by a guitarist-singer duo who kick out excellent renditions of regional American favorites like 'Down on the Bayou'. By the time we're finishing up, lunch hours are well over and Pagi Sore is almost empty. Benny and his wife join us at our table, commenting on ingredients and supplying the names of dishes we're unfamiliar with. We're sad to learn that none of Benny's six children - four in Toronto, two still in Padang - have any interest in continuing the Pagi Sore tradition.
I wonder aloud if, should we visit Padang again, I might learn the secret to that incredible rendang. An answer in the affirmative from Benny's wife all but assures our return.
Pagi Sore, No. 143 Jalan Pondok, Padang. Tel 32490. Open everyday, 8am-10pm.