For most university students, eating out isn’t a matter of simply choosing the most delicious restaurant nearby. A good restaurant needs to fulfil three criteria: price, taste and heartiness (how much it fills you up). Inner-city students, we’ve found your holy grail.
The name is Lestari, and it’s a no-frills Indonesian diner specialising in some of the most accessible food on earth: noodles and fried rice. It’s been a mainstay for the local Indonesian community since opening seven years ago but, despite being next door to UTS, it’s gone largely unnoticed by students because it’s hidden in an alley so anonymous and uninteresting, no one without a passion for urban exploration would ever think to venture down.
It’s not just the prices which are popular with Indonesians, the food is also much like what they’d find in Indonesia.
The owner, Ari Santoso and his sister Warsih “Chacha” Suyanti, are from Surabaya, a massive city in East Java. “[People from Surabaya] love spicy food, salty food – well, strong flavours in general. Like if you want it sweet it will be very sweet; if you want it salty it will be very salty,” says Chacha.
It’s the same at Lestari. The nasi goreng, the venue’s most popular dish (mostly because it’s great for “carb loading”, Chacha jokes), is rich, salty or shrimp-infused, depending on how you like it. It’s either tossed with a good clump of fermented shrimp paste, or it’s sweet and slightly sticky from being mixed with extra kecap manis, a sweet Indonesian soy sauce. If you want extraordinary levels of pungency, spice or sweetness, the tables are littered with bottles of kecap manis, tart chilli sauce and a homebrew of shrimp-heavy sambal.
For the average customer, those sauces are needed for the other big seller here: bakmi, an Indonesia’s deconstructed noodle soup. “It's different from Chinese noodle soups,” says Chacha. “The noodles are topped with minced meat and the soup is served on the side. If you want your noodles to be drowned in soup you can mix it yourself.”
The noodles (dressed in a secret concoction) and the soup are savoury, and are good eaten solo or with a splash of whatever condiment takes your fancy.
The fried rice, the bakmi, as well as the fried noodles (like a char kway teow or a punchier version of chow mein) is what Lestari built its reputation on, but Santoso is looking to expand his repertoire. Now he owns a bigger space (they used to operate a few doors away), a couple of dish experiments have made it to the menu. This week the specials include a spicy bakmi; Indonesian meatballs; and Lombok-style spicy grilled chicken.
The problem for Santoso is these have been the specials for ages. They’re now so popular, there was a customer mutiny when he tried to take them off the menu.
96/732 Harris Street, Chinatown
0430 138 268
Sun to Fri 12pm–7pm
This is another edition of Broadsheet's Local Knowledge weekly series, where Nick Jordan explores the eateries at the heart of Sydney's different cultural communities. Read more here.
For the city’s latest, subscribe to the Broadsheet newsletter.