By Richard Foss, Culture and Cuisine Writer
I had a delightful lunch recently while accompanied by someone who supplements his day job with income as a storyteller and comedian. He put those talents on display when his phone rang while we were waiting for our order to arrive.
“Oh, hi! Where am I? I’m having lunch at Uncle Fung’s. Yes, I did say Uncle Fung’s. He’s the one from Borneo. You may not have met him at my parties, he’s the quiet type, but really interesting once you get to know him. I don’t know which of my aunts he’s married to, but I suspect it may be both of them. Every time I ask they blush and change the subject … but how is your day?”
Listening to an accomplished liar in creative overdrive is an entrancing experience and I applauded when he ended the call, having brought a surreal moment to the person at the other end. I assume they eventually realized that almost everything said was a hoax, but there was a kernel of truth. We really were at Uncle Fung’s, a little cafe in Long Beach and Uncle Fung is from Borneo.
In case you are unclear on where that is, it’s the third largest island in the world and most of it is the Indonesian province of Kalimantan. Borneo was visited by traders from India at least as early as the fifth century and later by Chinese merchants. The island’s cuisine fuses those traditions with native ideas and ingredients. I first experienced the cuisine at a restaurant near San Gabriel that was straightforwardly called “Borneo Kalimantan Cuisine.” I like Indonesian food and this was a variant I had never tried before – heavy on funky, fermented flavors and intensely spicy.
This past September the owners of Borneo Kalimantan opened Uncle Fung’s Borneo Eatery in Long Beach. My friend the storyteller and I raced over there as soon as we could. He had dined with me at the Alhambra restaurant and we both expected the experience here to be similar, if not identical. We looked forward to the list of arcane dishes on offer and happily braced ourselves for the anticipated blast of spice and heat.
Our expectations were confounded the moment we got a look at the menu. It was far more limited than the one in Alhambra, although our server was quick to point out that the restaurant was new and they planned to expand the menu. We were more confused by the fact that most of the items were Singaporean, a cuisine that is related but significantly milder. After considering the location in a shopping center across the street from the medical center and Cal State Long Beach, the strategy became obvious: appeal to students from all over the region as well as adventurous outsiders rather than exclusively to Indonesian expats. This obviously works, as on both visits I saw a steady stream of young Asians, many in scrubs that suggest that they’re on a quick break from their health care duties. The room was full of a happy chatter in multiple languages as a stream of plates and bowls headed to tables.
We decided to start with roti prata, fresh flatbread with curry sauce for dipping, and gado gado, the Indonesian salad that includes both raw and pickled vegetables with fried tofu. Roti is often mistaken for Indian naan bread but is completely different, since naan dough contains yoghurt and is baked, while roti is a layered whole wheat dough that is fried. Good roti comes out of the kitchen buttery and flaky, which makes it wonderful with a dipping sauce. The accompanying curry was thick and yellowish orange, very fragrant but not particularly hot. Roti with curry is a traditional light breakfast across South Asia and the version here shows why.
Gado gado is peculiar to Indonesia, a salad made with tofu, bean sprouts, briefly cooked green beans, cabbage, and other vegetables served with a hardboiled egg and topped with a peanut-based dressing. Depending on where you are in Indonesia that dressing can go from fairly bland to quite spicy, but it always includes hints of sweetness from palm sugar and some garlic and ginger. The version here was not at all hot, though it was topped with fried shallots and crisped garlic granules so there were layers of flavor and texture.
To continue we had Borneo Hokkian mee noodles and Indonesian-spiced fried Cornish hen plate. (Cornish hens aren’t from Cornwall, but are immature chickens that are prized in several Asian cuisines for their mild flavor and tenderness.) The little bird had been dipped in a richly seasoned batter and then fried a bit past the American standard so that the exterior was a bit like jerky, which is exactly how Indonesians like it. Once you readjust your expectations you may decide that you like it too. It’s not going to replace Maryland-style fried chicken in my affections, but is nice on its own merits. With the rice and salad it’s a nice full meal, and a modestly priced one. It only set me back nine bucks.
Hokkien mee is based on house-made curly egg noodles, which Borneans probably adopted from Chinese immigrants. Egg noodles are more springy than standard pasta, fresh ones even more so, so it was a good sign that these had a pleasing elasticity and slight chewiness. They had been fried in a ginger-garlic sauce and then topped with char siu barbecued pork, chunks of chicken, mushrooms, vegetables, and more fried shallots, served with a mild broth on the side. Most people added some of the delicately flavored broth to the noodles, but I enjoyed them as they were and drank the broth separately.
With our meals we tried two of the tropical teas, one with chrysanthemum and the other with honey. Both were on the sweet side, which is how Indonesians like their tea, so if you don’t have a sweet tooth it’s best to just stick with water here.
Our abundant lunch generated some leftovers and ran about 17 bucks each. I resolved to return once the menu had filled out a little more. I waited a few months, then a few months more, but their menu-free website gave no information. I finally decided it was time to return, because surely after nine months in business their ambitions would be on display.
They have added a few items to the menu, most of them slight variants on what was already there — the fried hen is now available with two different seasonings, and there are a few more noodle dishes. There is also something called the Borneo rice plate, which I ordered because hope springs eternal and I was still hoping for those pungent flavors. When I asked for it to be made spicy, the server suggested that I deploy the hot sauce that is on the table. That made it clear that it wasn’t what I had in mind, but I got it anyway. It was a bed of rice with crispy fried chicken bits, barbecue pork, grilled lup chong Chinese pork sausage and a boiled egg, with the soup broth on the side. There was nothing that would raise a sweat and the hot sauce on the table didn’t have the intense flavor of traditional sambal chili sauce, but I found myself enjoying it anyway.
I mentioned my wish for more Bornean food choices to the sympathetic cashier, who said that their planned expansion had been delayed. I’m going to keep hopefully returning, because even if I can’t yet get the thrill ride for my taste buds, I have liked everything I had there. Uncle Fung, if you’re reading this, please know that your nephews, the spice lovers of the Harbor Area, are patiently waiting.
Uncle Fung’s Borneo Eatery is at 5716 E. 7th St., #A, Long Beach. It is open from 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. daily. There is a parking lot and no alcohol is served. Details: (562) 494-3888.