In a small strip center lined with restaurants just off Georgia’s Buford Highway, one stands out. The fragrant scents of turmeric, ginger, galangal, and chilies entrance the hungry. Once inside, golden chairs and red tablecloths, along with Javanese artwork and a large map of Indonesia, reflect the provenance of the menu offerings.
At Warung Indonesian Halal Restaurant in Doraville, Georgians and out-of-state visitors are treated to some of the best Indonesian food in the nation. Plates of nasi pecel, a rice dish served with vegetables bathed in a sweet peanut sauce; perfectly hot bakwan sayur, fried dough filled with sliced vegetables; and an array of soups, stews, and salads cover the tables as guests eagerly tuck in.
“When we opened, we decided to focus on Indonesian food,” said restaurant co-owner Sri Astuti. “We said, ‘It’s gonna be Indonesian-owned, it’s going to be our taste, and we’re going to promote the food we love.’ ”
Astuti and her husband, Deni Mulyana, opened Warung Indonesian Halal Restaurant in April 2020, just as the Covid pandemic wreaked havoc across multiple sectors of the economy—including the restaurant industry. Despite the difficulty of opening during such an unpredictable time, the restaurant has gained steady popularity from patrons in and around Atlanta. I lived in Indonesia myself while completing a Fulbright fellowship, and I came to love the country’s food. Since returning home to the United States five years ago, I’ve missed those flavors. I never expected to find them at a suburban Atlanta hole-in-the-wall. I first visited Warung in early 2021. I was cold, tired, and hungry following an eight-hour drive from Little Rock to Atlanta, and the meal was just what I needed. When I later gushed to Astuti about that experience, she took my enthusiasm in stride.
“People who know Indonesian food, they really appreciate it and love [our] food,” she said. “They tell us it makes them feel like they’re back in Indonesia, because there’s not such fusion in the taste. We’ve made all the ingredients and spices from scratch so we can provide that taste for our customers.”
The Indonesian diaspora in the United States is a relatively small one—a population of about 129,000. There are some two thousand Indonesian Americans in the Atlanta metropolitan area, making it one of the largest Indonesian communities in the South. Yet fewer than five restaurants in the Atlanta metropolitan area serve Indonesian food. Astuti and Mulyana, who immigrated to the United States in the early 2000s, noticed this lack of restaurants early in their time.
“When we leave the country, we have a mission to build a life somewhere else,” said Astuti. “But no matter where we end up, Indonesia is still in our hearts.”
Astuti observed other Indonesian-owned restaurants, noticing that the most successful ones opted to market themselves as pan-Asian, rather than Indonesian. These restaurateurs rounded out Indonesian menu offerings with dishes from more recognized Asian cuisines: Chinese, Japanese, Thai, or a combination. At first, Astuti tried a similar strategy, running an Indonesian and Asian food stand at a local festival. But ultimately she was determined to focus on the flavors and dishes of her homeland.
“Indonesian food is influenced by many countries, but our food still has a distinct taste. Even though it was challenging at first, I was committed to communicating our food and our culture.”
Rather than give up on the idea of an Indonesian restaurant, Astuti dug into pursuing identity and authenticity even more. She came up with the idea of building a warung—the Indonesian word for a small, typically family-owned food stand or café—in the United States. As a Muslim Indonesian, she’ d become familiar with the diverse Muslim communities in the United States. She realized that about 75,000 Atlantans identified as Muslim. Coming from a country that’s almost 90 percent Muslim, Astuti saw an opportunity: she could market Indonesian food as halal food, attracting Muslim Atlantans of many nationalities.
“I decided, it’s definitely going to be Indonesian, but we’re going to promote it differently. I did my research and realized how many Muslims live in the area. Let’s introduce us as a Muslim Indonesian [restaurant], out there to the Muslim community here. . . . Halal meat is slaughtered out here abundantly in the ethical way,” said Astuti. “So we had what we needed to serve ourselves and our customers.”
While Indonesian immigrants in the Atlanta area have found a home at the restaurant, Astuti says it’s non-Indonesian Muslims who make up the largest portion of her clientele. Guests come in hungry for a meal that’s both delicious and in alignment with their religious values.
“Overwhelmingly, we had such a great welcome. A lot of Muslims in this area are not from Indonesia. So we can introduce them to something new,” she said.
Astuti and Mulyana both grew up in West Java, a province on Indonesia’s most populous island. Astuti was born in Bogor City, near Jakarta, while Mulyana grew up outside of Bandung, the country’s third-largest city. Astuti studied at the National Hotel and Tourism Institute, where she learned how to share the history and beauty of Indonesia with residents and tourists. The job took her across the country to places like Lombok and Bali, and food was always a key tool in her messaging.
Astuti immigrated to the United States in 2001. She settled in Detroit and went to work in the hotel industry, hoping to combine her passions for food and travel. Not long after she arrived, she met Mulyana, who’ d trained as a hibachi chef. Astuti loved the snow, as it was vastly different from her homeland, but Mulyana was less enthusiastic about the cold climate. While Astuti enjoyed living in the city, she struggled to find Indonesian food and community. She regularly visited Indonesia to see her family, and her mother, a professional cook, explained to her that understanding how to cook Indonesian food—whether for business or personal sustenance—was essential.
“We [my family] gathered a lot on the table,” recalled Astuti. “So there were a lot of memories over there, over food really. So every time I went back home, I always tried to cook myself. My mom said, ‘You don’t have to do it like me professionally—having employees and all that stuff—but you do have to learn how to do it at home.”
As Astuti began to master Indonesian cuisine, she started to toy with the idea of opening her own restaurant. Mulyana was on board, but he was ready to leave Detroit. He suggested moving down south to Georgia, specifically the Atlanta area, where a sizeable number of Indonesians had immigrated for jobs in the tech, sales, and oil-and-gas sectors. And he was drawn to the climate, which would be more similar to the hot and humid Indonesian islands. The couple initially moved to Winder, about an hour from Georgia’s capital, and then closer to the city. In Doraville, a suburb just ten miles northeast of downtown Atlanta, Astuti found the perfect location for her restaurant.
“I said, ‘Oh this is perfect. This is located on Buford Highway; this is where the culinaries are. People are going to look for a lot of different cuisines, and there is no Indonesian restaurant. I’m going to give them one.’ ”
At Warung Indonesian, Astuti aims to amplify a cuisine that’s both underrepresented and misunderstood in the United States. Since 1980, immigrant populations in Doraville have rapidly increased, making the area home to one of the largest Asian populations in the country. An estimated 56 percent of Doraville residents speak a language other than English as a first language. A Bangladeshi halal butcher and grocery store is right next to Warung, and the neighborhood is filled with international restaurants, including Vietnamese, Indian, and Ethiopian. Warung Indonesian has quickly carved out its own niche. The restaurant has become a hub for the local Indonesian community, as well as for Muslim diners drawn by the halal designation.
Astuti remains true to the culinary skills she picked up from her mom. The beef rendang, a hearty beef stew that’s one of Indonesia’s most famous dishes, is bathed in coconut milk and aromatics and cooked for hours, until the beef is tender and falls apart. Satay ayam, seasoned chicken served on skewers, is cooked over an open flame, offering a smoky taste to balance the peanut sauce that covers the meaty chunks. Ikan tilapia goreng, or fried fish, is served steamed with rice and vegetables. And yes, there’s plenty of sambal and kecap manis—staple Indonesian condiments—to go around.
“It’s all made here, fresh, to reflect our perspective on Indonesian cooking. There are more than seventeen thousand islands in Indonesia. We’re not trying to tell the whole story—just the one we know.”
According to Astuti, Indonesians offered an overwhelmingly positive response to their efforts.
“For Indonesians that live in Atlanta, they’re very proud of us. They have spread the word to family, the friends that come from out of town, so the locals actually help us out in spreading the word about us, bringing more people to the restaurant.”
While the restaurant is still young, it shows the promise that has unfortunately evaded many Indonesian restaurants in the United States, even in large cities. In New York, Bali Kitchen, a popular Indonesian-owned restaurant in the heart of the East Village, was forced to close in summer 2020, a casualty of the pandemic. In Houston, too, Indonesian restaurants have struggled with longevity. Houston’s three thousand Indonesians tend to rely instead on local home-based caterers. Astuti hopes that her restaurant can be an anomaly, and an example of what’s possible when immigrant restaurant owners stay true to their values.
“[Indonesia] is a great country. We have different kinds of multicultural cultural backgrounds, but we unite together into one mission, which is supporting Indonesian culture in many ways. Our dream is to successfully promote our love of this culture.”
At Warung Indonesian, that love starts on the table.
“I’ve always wanted to show how beautiful Indonesia is, how much love exists in our country. How can I do that better than through food?”