Where to find great Indonesian food in Seattle? Try this cozy U District cafe

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Mie ayam with wontons at Beetle Cafe, on the Ave. In the background: beef rendang; and on the far left, soto betawi. (Shirley Qiu / The Seattle Times)

I first learned about Beetle Cafe, not long after it opened in 2015, from an Indonesian schoolmate — word seemed to have spread quickly of this great new Indonesian cafe-restaurant on the Ave in the U District.

At the time, I had just returned from a months-long stint reporting in Jakarta, Indonesia. I was delighted, and somewhat comforted, to learn that the foods I’d grown to love thousands of miles away were now a part of my old college stomping grounds, in a city where Indonesian restaurants are hard to come by.

I don’t quite remember what I ordered that day; just that I felt a sort of joy for this place, which held tangible mementos of an exciting and enriching time in my life.

I’ve gone back a number of times since then, eager to revisit the many great foods from my months abroad. And so, on a recent Friday (and shortly after watching that glorious hawker-center food scene in “Crazy Rich Asians“), there I was again, with a craving for Southeast Asian food.

This time, I went straight for the mie ayam, a noodle dish topped with diced chicken, mushrooms and chicken broth on the side. It was a lunchtime favorite of mine in Jakarta, served in a small, modest canteen below my office building.  So simple — and affordable! — but so very satisfying.

Beetle Cafe’s version was not quite what I’d remembered eating in Jakarta. The chicken was slightly tougher, the noodles (made in-house) a bit denser, and the flavor, rather sweet in comparison, didn’t hit the same note as I’d remembered. But, for a moment, I was back in that Jakarta canteen, then immersed in memories of delicious Indonesian home cooking, thrilling motorcycle rides, fast friendships … and for that, I will keep coming back.

The menu: While Beetle Cafe started with just five entrees from a mix of Asian cultures, said owner Sara Liong, it’s since expanded significantly to feature more Indonesian food, at the request of Indonesian students and a professor who visited the cafe in its early days. (Liong herself is from Jakarta, and can sometimes be seen speaking with customers in Indonesian.)

Now, it contains a variety of mostly Batawi-style dishes from Jakarta, she said: nasi goreng (Indonesian fried rice), beef rendang (slow-cooked curry beef served with rice and a fried boiled egg), gado gado (a warm salad in peanut sauce, served with rice) and soto betawi (a coconut-based beef soup with tripe and tendon, also served with rice), to name a few. Hainan chicken, popular around Southeast Asia, is also a customer favorite on the menu. Desserts and other sweets include shaved ice, pisang bakar (grilled banana with condensed milk, chocolate sprinkles and shredded cheese) and jus alpukat (a sweet avocado smoothie with chocolate syrup).

There’s sometimes also a special of the month, which has included, in the past, sate ayam and sate babi (chicken and pork skewers, respectively), and tempe orek (stir-fried tempeh with soy sauce).

Don’t miss: Liong’s favorite dish at the cafe is soto betawi, and it’s not hard to see why — though I came in for the mie ayam, I couldn’t put the soto betawi down. The broth, which Liong says is brewed with beef bones for two to three hours, was super-flavorful, as any good bone broth should be. With the creamy hues of coconut and a touch of sweetness, it was perfection in liquid form. I made a mental note to come back during the rainier and colder days ahead.

Prices: Soto betawi ($9.50), mie ayam with pangsit (wonton) ($8.50) and beef rendang ($9.50) totaled $27.50 before tax and tip, a great deal for a student budget.


Beetle Cafe

Indonesian/Taiwanese; 4334 University Way N.E. (U District), Seattle; Monday-Friday noon-6 p.m., Saturday noon-5 p.m. (hours expand during the school year, starting mid-September, to Monday-Friday 11 a.m.-8:30 p.m., Saturday noon-5 p.m.); 206-547-0977

Shirley Qiu: or sqiu@seattletimes.com.