Kaki Lima Is a Pop-Up Burst of Indonesian Flavor

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Walk through a heavy black door, enter into the hidden speakeasy bar Wink & Nod, and be instantly transported to the the prohibition era of the ’20s. You will be greeted by a chic stewardess who will show you to your seat in front of vast bar displaying top-shelf bottles of premium liquor.

The bar’s plush interiors make it the perfect setting to sit back and enjoy a gastronomic culinary experience. First comes the Batagor—fried shrimp dumplings with tofu and spicy peanut sauce—creating an explosion of flavors and textures with every bite. Then comes the Gulai—seared duck breast and charred brussels sprouts in a lemongrass-coconut curry—which will have you grabbing for your glass of water and diving back in for more.   

Hungry foodies begin to fill every seat in the bar, eager to get a taste for the much talked about Indonesian pop-up restaurant Kaki Lima. The dishes are beautifully presented and are bursting with sweet, sour, and spicy flavors. Kaki Lima founder Peter Gelling makes the rounds, greeting guests and serving up mouth-watering plates.

Prior to the pop-up restaurant, Gelling served as a correspondent for The New York Times based in Jakarta, Indonesia from 2004 to 2010. In need of an interpreter, Gelling met Indonesian native Rento Pratiwi. Eventually, the pair began dating and travelled around Indonesia together as a journalism duo, tasting the exotic food from different regions of the country along the way.

Noticing a complete lack of Indonesian restaurants in Boston, Gelling left behind his career in journalism to take on the city’s culinary scene. Gelling and Pratiwi moved to Boston after they married, inspired to introduce Indonesian cuisine to American audiences.

Utilizing Pratiwi’s culinary experience, the pair began selling food at the annual Indonesian Festival in Copley Square. Astonished by the large turnout, Gelling realized there was a market for Indonesian food in Boston.

In 2013, the couple officially started Kaki Lima, an Indonesian pop-up restaurant with Pratiwi serving as the head chef. Kaki Lima translates from Indonesian to ‘street vendor,’ wordplay that ties the business into the pop-up concept that has the duo serving their authentic Indonesian cuisine in many locations around Boston.

“For people who are just getting started out in the restaurant industry, a pop-up is ideal,” Gelling said. “It has been a great learning process for us.”

Gelling explained that launching a pop-up instead of a restaurant has allowed his team to take risks and experiment with different dishes, seeing what works and what does not. Their pop-up has been a way for Gelling and Pratiwi to reach a point where they now have enough knowledge of the industry to potentially open their own restaurant.

Most recently, Kaki Lima has popped-up at KO Pies in East Boston, and Tavern Road in Fort Point. In both instances, their fare sold out almost instantaneously. Overtime, the pop-up eatery grew in popularity, and Boston Nightlife Ventures took notice. The restaurant group reached out to Gelling and offered Kaki Lima a residency for six months at the trendy South End bar Wink & Nod.

Gelling expressed that the offer was a no-brainer. For six months, he and Pratiwi would have the opportunity to learn the ins and outs of running a restaurant without risk. Many other pop-up restaurants who have done residencies at Wink & Nod, like Doretta Taverna and Brassica Kitchen, have gone on to open successful restaurants around Boston.  

After opening in 2014, Wink & Nod has become renowned for its specially crafted cocktails and rotating-kitchen concept. The award-winning bartenders have worked with Kaki Lima to create innovative cocktails infused with Indonesian flavors.  

Flavors unique to Kaki Lima’s dishes include lime leaves, galangal—an aromatic similar to ginger but spicier—tamarind, and salam leaf. According to Gelling, the process of cooking Indonesian food is extremely labour intensive, but the resulting dishes are layered with complex flavors.  

“Indonesian food is bold and in your face, as opposed to French cuisine which is subtle and nuanced,” Gelling said.

For just one dish that offers an authentic Indonesian food experience, Gelling recommended the House Special Beef Rendang. The beef is coated in dozens of species from the West Sumatra region of Indonesia, and is then braised for 12 hours until tender. Being one of Indonesia’s most famous dishes, Gelling explained that many customers see the rendang on the menu and go straight for it.

Another popular menu item is the Terong Banda, grilled eggplant with a macadamia-coconut sauce. This dish holds special significance for Gelling and Pratiwi who were taught the recipe by a family in a remote region of Indonesia called the Banda Islands.

While a permanent Kaki Lima restaurant is not currently in the works, Gelling insisted that it is the pair’s ultimate goal. Gelling explained his ideal location would be East Boston, where he and Pratiwi reside. Meanwhile, Boston foodies will have to wait in anticipation to see if a Kaki Lima brick and mortar will pop up in the future.

“Our mission is not just to open up a restaurant but to popularize Indonesian cuisine and educate people about Indonesia,” Gelling said.

Featured Image by William Batchelor / Heights Editor