Waroeng is the midwest’s first and only Indonesian grocery | Food & Drink Feature | Chicago Reader

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Waroeng is the midwest’s first and only Indonesian grocery

Minahasa partners John Avila and Tasya Hardono have opened your one-stop shop for comestibles from Borneo, Bali, Sulawesi, Sumatra, Java, and beyond.

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Tasya Hardono stocks close to 600 different items on the shelves at Waroeng in Schaumburg. - MATTHEW GILSON FOR CHICAGO READER
  • Matthew Gilson for Chicago Reader
  • Tasya Hardono stocks close to 600 different items on the shelves at Waroeng in Schaumburg.

Tasya Hardono thought hard about where to locate the midwest’s first and only Indonesian grocery store.

“Indonesian people like to hang out in Woodfield Mall, Mitsuwa, and there is one restaurant called Asian Noodle [House]. So I open the map.”

She found the right spot in a former cell phone store in a Schaumburg strip mall, just a few minutes southwest of that pan-Asian restaurant with a handful of Malaysian dishes on the menu. Until recently, Chicago’s Indonesian community had no place of its own when it comes to retail comestibles—or restaurants. Notwithstanding the very active but once again itinerant Indo-Cajun Bumbu Roux, that began to change when chef John Avila opened Minahasa at Revival Food Hall last January.

Like so many chefs I’ve covered during the pandemic, Avila, a former sous chef at Gibsons Italia, took advantage of his idle time to pivot to something personal, cooking food inspired by his mother Betty’s hometown in North Sulawesi. When I wrote about him in November he was still taking orders via Instagram but dreaming about opening a brick-and-mortar location. In early January he and Betty took a big half step, settling into Revival. It was as busy as a crypt, but he still felt like he was in over his head. He knew how to run a kitchen, but, “Technically I didn’t know how to run my business,” he says.

Meanwhile, Hardono was bouncing back from an especially difficult year. She was born in Jakarta and for the better part of the last 25 years she’s worked in middle management at fast-casual chain restaurants in the northern suburbs, moving up from server to manager at Panda Express, and going on to oversee multiple KFC/Taco Bell locations. Just before COVID-19, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. 

She began treatment, but over the summer her FMLA benefits ran out, and she lost her job as a training specialist for Panera Bread. “Everything I thought I had was crushed,” she says. But then she thought, “This won’t be forever.”

She underwent surgery, chemo, and radiation, and in January her doctor gave her a clean bill of health. She began planning her next move. “My husband said, ‘Why don’t you start something that you always wanted to do?’ All those years I’m taking care of other people’s money. I started looking for a restaurant for sale.”

She wanted to open an Indonesian restaurant in particular. She knew cooks in the community who sold traditional homemade food to friends and family in quantity, but nobody who knew how to run a professional kitchen. “I was just sitting at that computer wondering what’s new in Chicago during the pandemic,” when she read about Avila in the Reader. She realized Betty was a friend of her mom’s. “We knew Auntie Betty makes a good egg roll.”

On Minahasa’s second day in business at Revival, she and her husband placed an order for ayam tuturuga and beef rendang and drove into the city. “I introduced myself. I said, ‘John, who is working with you?’ ‘Just me and my mom.’ I said, ‘You must be kidding. How can I help?’”

She showed up an hour before opening the next morning and began pitching in—and pitching. “The next day she was like, ‘I want to invest,’” says Avila. “‘I can help you run the financial part and run the front.’ My mom said, ‘We can trust her.’” Hardono took orders, helped with opening and closing, and generally took care of the front of the house as traffic in the food hall gradually began to increase.

MATTHEW GILSON FOR CHICAGO READER
  • Matthew Gilson for Chicago Reader
MATTHEW GILSON FOR CHICAGO READER
  • Matthew Gilson for Chicago Reader

Before last month, if you suddenly found yourself in need of any of the fundamental ingredients of Indonesian cuisine, such as candlenuts, sambal, or the textural universe of crisps and crackers that serve as snacks and accompaniments, you might get lucky at one of the city’s Vietnamese supermarkets. But ever since Golden Pacific Market closed in 2017, if you were, say, Grant Achatz in search of kluwak kupas, it was no dice, chef. Hardono noticed that when Avila needed Indonesian shrimp paste or kecap, he’d often strike out on Argyle Street. And when he’d order items wholesale from importers on the coasts, he’d get overcharged.

A sales rep from an LA-based importer recognized their dilemma and suggested that Hardono cut out the middlemen and establish a midwestern retail hub for Indonesian imports, which would save on shipping and wholesale upcharges for the restaurant. At nearly the same time the Indonesian consul general stopped by Minahasa for banana fritters and suggested the very same thing.

The partners shook hands on the idea and in June, after a frenetic and sometimes harrowing build-out, Hardono, Avila, and a third partner threw a grand opening for Waroeng two days after the first of five pallets of merchandise tipped over in transit, leaking sambal and flavored children’s milk on a trucking company’s warehouse floor.

But Hardono’s husband Hardy works in logistics for a packaging company, and he knew how to ensure the rest of the stock would arrive in time. Family and friends chipped in to stock the shelves, input point of sale codes, and set up a karaoke system for the ribbon cutting. The consul general showed up, as did the mayor of Schaumburg, along with a number of other dignitaries. Waroeng, which is a word for a small village general store, was open for business.

MATTHEW GILSON FOR CHICAGO READER
  • Matthew Gilson for Chicago Reader

Hardono, who divides her time between Minahasa and the store, stocks close to 600 different items. That includes some 25 varieties of chips and crackers, (shrimp, tapioca, squid, etc.), 20 different kinds of sambal, and dozens of premade spice mixes and pastes for quick and easy versions of dishes like rendang, soto ayam, nasi goreng, or bumbu rawon—plus most of the raw ingredients you need to make them from scratch (including kluwak kupas).

Location Details Waroeng
2217 W. Schaumburg Rd.
Suburbs Northwest
Schaumburg, IL
(833) 927-6364

Last month she handed me a rarely unblemished, fuschia-colored rambutan from one of the cases she’d picked out herself from her Florida-based fruit supplier, and she led me on a rapid-fire tour of the store’s two narrow aisles.

There’s the full spectrum of Mie Sedaap instant noodles, including the exceedingly uncommon spicy rendang flavor with green chili; sweet and hot varieties of emping, crackers made from the belinjo nut; tempeh starter; whole candlenuts; and peanutty pastes for gado gado. There’s a section for handicrafts and topical remedies; tea and coffee; and a dizzying aisle full of snacks from which she plucked and pressed on me a bag of ghost pepper cassava chips and another filled with keripik usus—crunchy, sweet-salty twists of salted egg-flavored chicken intestine. (They were snacktastic).

People have come from Rockford, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa to shop for these things. Two weeks ago two guys loaded up their trunk with $600 worth of goods and headed back to Nebraska. Each weekend the store offers a small menu of prepared foods for carryout, such as last week’s martabak telor (stuffed beef pancakes), tahu isi (stuffed tofu), roti sobek coklat (chocolate sweet buns), and the pickled vegetable medley acar, kind of like Indonesian giardiniera.

Meanwhile, Hardono’s buying power allows her to supply Minahasa with staples like terasi shrimp paste from northern Java at import prices, skipping the wholesale markup. “That’s where the best shrimp comes from,” she says.

She’s also able to source rare and hard-to-get items like roa, anchovies fished off North Sulawesi that Avila processes into sambal; and the smoked skipjack tuna he needs for the grilled banana-leaf-wrapped coconut sticky rice cakes lalampa.

It’s going to be fun to watch him build an ever wider repertoire of uncommon Indonesian dishes. “A lot of stuff I’ve never seen because I’m an Indonesian American,” he says. “So I’m glad I have her around to broaden my horizons. She’s introducing me to new ingredients I’ve never worked with. It’s kind of a playground for me.”  v

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