Alvin Saputra and his brother Akbar Thaip decided it was time to bring their family's tried-and-tested recipes to the public. And looking for an excuse to spend more time together, the brothers opened Solo Newtown, their first restaurant. ‘Solo’ is the official nickname for Surakarta, their home city in Java, and many of the dishes here are only found in this region.
Recipes are taken from generations of family cooks. "My grandfather had three wives, so I had at least 15 uncles and aunties," says Saputra. "He used to gather us up for family reunions and prepare big feasts for everyone."
Solo's speciality is barbecued chicken, ayam bakar. Order the 'big tray chicken' — it's half the bird plated up with two spicy sambals, pickled zucchini, coleslaw, coconut rice and a leafy salad. To prepare the dish, the chicken is divided into thigh and breast. Poaching is necessary before barbecuing, and perfect timing is crucial.
"Before marinating and barbecuing it, we poach the breast in special stock for 30 to 35 minutes and the thigh for 45 minutes,” says Saputra. “This is because the thigh is still on the bone and the breast becomes inedible if cooked for too long."
The marinade appears in each of their meat dishes: it's made on a base of ketchap manis with rica rica chilis, onion and shallots. Before the beef short ribs are brushed with marinade, they're slow cooked for 12 hours to reach soft, fall-off-the-bone deliciousness. Then they're grilled and served with coconut rice and pickled watermelon.
Lamb satay skewers evoke nostalgia for Saputra, being one of his grandfather's best dishes. "We use the highest possible quality of lamb shoulder, which is marinated for a while before serving," he says. "A lot of places do satay, but their textures are not as tender as ours."
For a single meal, the lemongrass, galangal (an important ingredient in Indonesian cooking) and chilli mussels in Bintang go down a treat. The beef rendang, compulsory to any Indonesian culinary experience, comes in the form of a quesadilla with tomato, chives and cheese.
Emping is a Surakarta-only snack — it’s a crisp cracker made from melinjo nuts. They’re rarely found outside of the city.
Solo's only been open for a couple of months, so their vegetarian options are still expanding. Keep an eye out for lodeh, a vegetable curry that's famous in Surakarta, which consists of tempeh, tofu, snake beans and unripened jackfruit. You'll notice the abundance of tofu on the menu, symbolic of the soybean's importance in Java.
There's no shortage of Bintang beer, ideal for that proper Indonesian throwback, and for dessert, the black sticky rice with shredded coconut, grape and mango is hard to go past. But if you do, there's doughnut sticks with pandan custard waiting.
Saputra and Thaip’s family moved to Sydney while they were in primary school and were able to continue their family food traditions by sticking with the Indonesian community. It was here where Saputra befriended Olly Lukas from a Jakarta family, and their friendship remains strong to this day.
Now Lukas is head chef at Solo Newtown. "A lot of food we serve here is what I grew up eating — I learned a lot from my aunt," he says. "I never knew the recipes but I remember the taste well. So I've spent a long time recreating the flavours from my childhood memories."
Wed 10am - 4pm; Thur - Sun 10am - 10pm
415 King Street, Newtown, NSW
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