The idea of BoBoKo Indonesian Cafe was born when owner Hotiman Ridwan entered a local contest for food business concepts called the “What’s Cooking? Program,” according to the restaurant’s website. Ridwan won the contest in April 2015 and opened his restaurant the following June.
Now, BoBoKo nestles into the northeast corner of the historic Ice House building downtown at 217 S. Liberty St., within sight of the Farmer’s Market parking lot. The Indonesian fusion restaurant draws its name from the word “boboko,” which, in a west-Java tribal language, names a round, plaited, bamboo basket used to serve rice. The restaurant’s sign depicts a cartoonized “boboko” under the bright red letters, a BoBoKo-within-a-boboko kind of moment. And if you decide to order one of their many rice dishes, well, that’s a sequel to the 2010 film “Inception.”
Inside this small sliver of a restaurant, the tables line up on one side of the room, presenting space for 18, including the bar stools. On the walls hang wooden tribal masks, each one different from the rest, and antiqued windows that frame colorful patterned paper. Here again I find the staple design elements of Harrisonburg’s downtown restaurants: a brick wall — just one, surrounding the entrance — and open duct work on the ceiling, this time painted black.
The atmosphere of this place is different, though, than most restaurants, thanks to the live soundtrack that floats through the air from the kitchen. Yes, they have the stereo on, but nothing can beat the sounds of cooking. The kitchen inhabits the space behind an open dividing wall, so I hear my order sizzling on the grill, serenaded by the scraping spatulas. My stomach grumbles, anticipating the arrival of my “Chicken Fried Rice,” which is listed under the “street food” on the menu.
With three folding pages, the menu offers a variety of options, from fried rice dishes to noodle-based, to soups, sandwiches, curries, and even French macaroons for dessert. Most options are more expensive than my college student budget allows, ranging from a minimum of $10 to $15 for an entree. Mine was on the lower end of the price spectrum at $10.95.
The first thing I notice about my meal is its artistic presentation. A mountain of seasoned rice perches in the middle, a perfect half-sphere without a grain out of place. Like hardened lava, a fried egg rests on top of the mountain, over-medium, browned just right with a hint of soy sauce. At the rice’s base gather three distinct companions: mixed vegetables, Indonesian chips, and two skewers of chicken. The vegetables, comprising cucumbers and carrots, bring a punchy pickled flavor to the dish. The chips, resembling puffs of clouds, add a crunch. The chicken, somehow both crispy and juicy, contribute umami warmth.
The rice itself, however, captures the attention of my tastebuds. It is seasoned with what the waitress describes as “red spice,” a combination of sweet soy sauce, chilis, shallots, and other spices ground up in a blender on site. The spice lives up to its name: a warm ember glows in the back of my throat, building with each bite.
From behind the counter, Ridwan waves goodbye with spatula in hand, a smile spreading across his face, and thanks me for coming. No, thank you, I neglect to say. Thank you for caring so much about this passion of yours.
Given the flavor and craft of my meal, the charm of the atmosphere, and the friendly waving chef, I will likely return to BoBoKo, even if I cannot afford to become a regular.