Indonesian and creole food have practically nothing in common—except for Chris Reed.
He's the chef behind Bumbu Roux in the West Loop's Politan Row, a vendor who represents another unlikely cross-cultural marriage of cuisines born of an actual human marriage. Like Margaret Pak of Thattu, across the hall, who hints at the great potential of a Keralite-Korean (Koralite?) mash-up with her kimchi upma, Reed demonstrates Indo-creole compatibility with a pork sambal po'boy: vivid, cool, crunchy pickles, neon-lit with turmeric, brightening the meaty richness of shoulder debris braised in sambal, garlic, and ginger. All mayo-slathered and baguette-swaddled, it's a sandwich that spans oceans and commands all the senses.
For the past ten years Reed, along with his mother, Priscilla, has operated the catering and pop-up operation the Rice Table, and during much of that time it was the city's only commercial representation of the food of the Indonesian archipelago.
Indonesian food itself is an archipelago of regional cuisines, flavored by centuries of Indian, Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, and Dutch influence. The Reeds became known for the eponymous multidish feast known as rijsttafel (rice table), but also worked the summer festival circuit, introducing sweaty Pitchfork crowds to peanut-sauced satays, coconut- curried tempeh, and stewy beef rendang.
But Priscilla Reed—who was born in Bandung, West Java, and grew up in the Netherlands—knows how to cook more than just Indonesian fare. Her late husband, Donald, came from Napoleonville, Louisiana, and early in their marriage when they lived in Germany, he taught her to make the food he was homesick for: gumbo, red beans and rice, blackened catfish, and "the turnips," as they were known—which Chris Reed later realized was essentially an etouffee, the classic roux-thickened, creole-Cajun rice "smother," subbing root vegetables for chicken or shrimp.
About four years ago, shortly after his father passed away, Reed started offering dishes such as these to his catering clients, not just to drum up business but "as a way to feel like I still had my dad around." Creole-Cajun pop-up gumbo parties with beer and live jazz followed, a pivot that caught the attention of the Politan Group, whose first multivendor food hall was the Saint Roch Market in New Orleans's Bywater District.
- Alexus McLane
- Chef Chris Reed with his mother, Priscilla. Chris holds a photo of his late father, Donald, carrying him as a child.
Reed always kept the cuisines more or less separate, and still does. Apart from the sambal po'boy—which evolved from a banh mi he once served called the Krakatoa—he keeps the food mostly faithful to its origins. "I definitely want to represent both cuisines on their own," he says. "When it makes sense to have them come together I will, but I never want the feeling that I'm just trying to mash them together. To me the most important thing is showing what they are at their purest."
That doesn't mean they can't startle you out of the fog of expectations. Reed's seafood gumbo is a fairly classic stew of blue crabmeat, shrimp, and oysters, but its silky richness enslaves the parietal lobe the minute it coats the mouth and administers its slow, gentle burn.
Short-lived Indonesian restaurants like August Moon, Angin Mamiri, and De Quay have come and gone—part of the reason the Reeds hesitated for years to open their own brick-and-mortar spot. Lincoln Park's delightful six-year-old Rickshaw Republic notwithstanding, they weren't sure Chicago was ready for one. And Indonesian food still isn't as easy a sell as creole. Reed thinks he serves more blackened catfish with sides of red beans and rice and turnip etouffee than anything else, some customers waiting up to seven minutes for the fillets to get seared back in the vendors' shared kitchen. While the beef in the more traditional debris po'boy gets braised in Cafe du Monde coffee, the chicory lending a layer of nuttiness to the roasted-garlic aioli and house-made pickles, the aforementioned sambal po'boy may serve as a gateway to the Indonesian stuff for a West Loop crowd that sometimes needs encouragement. Priscilla is usually at the counter to explain that gado-gado is a composed salad—here subbing green-leaf lettuce and tofu for cabbage and tempeh—and that the taste of the soy-marinated chicken bakar is on the sweeter rather than the spicier side of the spectrum.
Reed says the house-made tempeh-and-shrimp chips known as kerupuk provide another unthreatening introduction. They come with the chicken bakar as well as with the rendang, here a saucy version of the slow-cooked, coconut-infused beef dish, its spicy gravy absorbed by a pile of white rice alongside garlic-soy-braised bok choy.
Reed says the setup at Politan Row is conducive to change, and like Margaret Pak, he's planning on introducing new creole and Indonesian dishes, and even some mash-ups, such as his take on sambal goreng udang, spicy stir-fried shrimp, served not with rice but over grits. You know, when it makes sense.
The name Reed came up with is shorthand for the way he and his mother make sense of what they're doing for puzzled first-timers. Turns out Indonesian and creole food do have something in common. Bumbu is the Indonesian word for a spice blend, which, much like a creole roux, is the foundation of Indonesian cuisine.
"They'll say 'Indonesian-creole? How'd you come up with that?'" says Reed. "I didn't come up with it. This is my mom. That was my dad." v