57 Charing Cross Road
Mie Bakso: £4.50
Nasi Pedang: £5
Canned drinks: 50p
It's not often you find a cheap, filling, fantastically flavoured, expertly cooked lunch slap-bang in central London. However, for lunch or dinner for a fiver or less, head up a gaudy Chinese shop's escalators, turn past the tattooist and the massage parlour, until you find shelves filled with Indonesian products. Propped up against the counter is a list of dishes and the man behind it will explain their particulars for you. Indonesian food doesn't yet have the same cultural cognisance as Indian or Chinese, but this shop could single-handedly reverse its fortunes.
When I first went, the only dish available was Mie Bakso - a meatball soup with two kinds of noodles, various crunchy bits and a sprinkling of green leaves. The broth is clear, flavoured to the hilt, and absorbs the complimentary spicy sambals nicely. The meatballs are spongy - apparently this is traditional, as tapioca flour is added to stretch the meat further - and this is slightly disconcerting to a Westerner unaccustomed to Indonesian food. Overall, this is a dish that packs many surprises - from the flavours to the textures to the quantity crammed into what looks like a small bowl.
The second time was for a late Sunday lunch. The cafe was packed with laughing Indonesian students who, according to the owner, had eaten almost everything. The only dish left was Nasi Pedang - a large-portioned taster of curries, rice, sambal and poppadoms. The curries - a hump of curried potato, an earthy and intense beef redang and a searingly spicy chicken curry - showcased different flavours and textures and schooled us in the basics of Indonesian cuisine. The green and tangy sambal added another layer and worked well with both meat dishes.
With such cheap, delicious and plentiful food in the heart of London, this place is a gem of a find. As usual, thanks to Chowhound for the tip. Most people would ignore a small sign reading "Indonesia Mini Market" or, even if they did follow it up the stairs, would be diverted by the depressing "Brazil by the kilo" restaurant next-door. Finding and eating new cuisines at low prices is part of the joy of living in London. Let's all get out of our Indian-Chinese-Italian bubbles and open our eyes.