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Upi Jaya downhill?

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We ordered widely from the menu last night (beef and chicken rendang, fried eggs, kale w/coconut milk, jackfruit, curry chicken, gado gado, goat stew, etc.) but we left underwhelmed. The rendang and the "curry" sauces were distinctly different in flavor (the rendang being more smoky and the curry being very coconut-y), but those seemed to be the only two sauces in use in the kitchen. Everything tasted the same, with no distinct flavors. Did we orderly badly? Or is Upi Jaya phoning it in these days?

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Upi Jaya
76-04 Woodside Ave, Queens, NY 11373

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  1. I haven't been to Upi Jaya in a few months as I was out of the country, but they have always had their occasional bad days in the 50 or so times I've been there. I find them much better, and equally consistent, than the other Indonesian restaurants in Queens. (btw, I noticed that Bromo is now closed).

    You did hit most of my favorite dishes (I assume you meant the "Gulai Kambing" which they refer to as "lamb stew", not goat -- it's my wife's favorite dish) although I don't remember ever seeing a fried egg dish on the menu. I've never been disappointed by the beef rendang, except for the price vs quantity, or the gado gado. imho, both compare favorably with anyplace I've tried them, including several trips to Indonesia.

    I'll probably be back there sometime in the next 2 weeks. You should give them another try too.

    2 Replies
    1. re: el jefe

      Agreed. It has been increasingly inconsistent for the past couple of years, but it is still the best Indonesian I have had in NYC. After considering dropping it from my list of places to go I gave it a last try recently and had two very nice meals in a row there. The Mee Goreng has improved greatly over what it had been! I just hope they get the A/C going this summer. The authentic sweltering experience might appeal to some, but it can be a bit off putting in the dog days of summer. Also the service has been better in the past, but it is the food that really counts. Any other insights from others?

      1. re: el jefe

        el jefe, thanks for the advice. I'm impressed that the food at Upi Jaya compares favorably with what you would find in Indonesia (Sumatra, I assume? The proprietress was careful to explain the difference between Upi Jaya's spicy Sumatran cuisine and the sweeter, less spicy food found in her native Jakarta...). That alone makes me game to head back and give Upi Jaya's food another try.

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        Upi Jaya
        76-04 Woodside Ave, Queens, NY 11373

      2. Here's City Spoonful's review of a recent meal at Upi Jaya. The gist: It's certainly tasty food, and we enjoyed our meal -- but we had hoped for better.

        For one thing, we had expected a greater variety of flavors in the wide range of dishes we tried. Sadly, the same yellow-hued, coconut-y gravy made an appearance in almost every dish on our table -- much like the creamy tomato sauces that are ubiquitous at sub-par Indian-American restaurants. Read on!

        Even after almost a decade in business, Upi Jaya’s owner and namesake can still be found in the kitchen, turning out the spicy Sumatran fare of her native Padang. Her cooking reputedly compares favorably with versions of the same dishes procured in Indonesia.

        It’s not surprising, then, that we had high hopes for our meal at the much-loved Elmhurst, Queens, Indonesian eatery. But when we paused to reload our plates after descending enthusiastically on the array of beef, lamb, chicken and vegetable dishes we ordered on a recent visit, the general consensus at the table was disappointment.

        It’s not that the food wasn’t good—it was undeniably tasty. But dish after dish featured coconut-infused, yellow-hued sauces that, as far as we could tell, employed the same one-two-three combo of turmeric, red chili and coconut milk. These dishes lacked complexity and were so similar that we struggled to taste any difference between them.

        The three chicken dishes we tried—ayam gulai (curried chicken cooked in coconut milk, red chili and turmeric), ayam rendang (chicken cooked in coconut milk, ginger and lemongrass) and ayam panggang (Indonesian-style barbecued chicken)—were almost identical in flavor and appearance (except the barbecued chicken, which had a blackened exterior). Only after consulting with our server were we able to determine which was which. (Full disclosure: Your humble reviewer, a vegetarian, owes the “meaty” portions of this review to the careful descriptions provided by her carnivorous dining companions.)

        The same spicy-sweet sauce made an appearance in two of the vegetarian dishes we tried, sayur nangka (young jackfruit cooked in a “lightly spiced curry”) and sayur daun singkon (kale cooked in coconut milk and spices).

        The gulai kambing (traditional Indonesian lamb stew) was also coated with a doctored take on that coconut milk–based sauce, though this version had appealing cumin undertones.

        Still, our lamb lover praised the meat for its tenderness, and everyone agreed that the chicken was quite good—crispy-skinned and juicy within. Unfortunately, the flavors of the soggy kale and the jackfruit were mostly drowned out by the creamy, coconut-based sauce.

        The beef rendang (shredded beef simmered in spices) and gado gado (a medley of steamed vegetables tossed in a peanut sauce) offered a welcome change.

        The beef rendang, easily the most popular dish at our table, was melt-in-your-mouth tender. The meat’s distinctive smoky, spicy flavor was uniquely delicious.

        The gado gado combined bits of steamed but still crunchy green beans, cabbage and greens, sliced potato, cucumber, scallions, bean sprouts and fried crisps—all tossed in a lemony peanut sauce. However, the lemon, which had a distinctly artificial taste, dominated the peanut sauce.

        We also tried two appetizers, pempek palembang (fish cakes, scallions and vermicelli noodles submerged in a hot-and-sour sauce) and tahu isi (fried tofu stuffed with vegetables).

        The minced vegetables stuffed inside the two large cakes of fried tofu could have come from a fried egg roll at any Chinese-American takeout joint—they were heavy on cabbage and low on flavor. The fish cakes’ sauce was an appealing blend of salty, tangy and sweet flavors, but the fish cakes themselves had a squishy texture that was off-putting to many in our group.

        The bill for our huge meal was ridiculously low—roughly $20 each—and we left happy on that count. Some of us were curious to come back for Upi Jaya’s weekend specials, nasi goring and mie goring (Indonesian fried rice and stir-fried noodles, respectively). Others were glad to have tried this Indonesian cooking institution once but were not impressed enough to return.

        Photos at City Spoonful: http://www.cityspoonful.com/upi-jaya/

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        Upi Jaya
        76-04 Woodside Ave, Queens, NY 11373