We arrive at Willis Canteen at 12.06pm, six minutes after opening. Its order docket has just one thing written on it, and it is written 20 times. If you’re Indonesian and you live in Sydney, chances are you’ve heard the phrase: “gado gado Willis Canteen lama”. It means the gado gado at Willis Canteen takes forever, and it does. Not because the chefs are slow or because the kitchen is disorganised, but because everyone who goes to Willis Canteen orders gado gado, and the sauce is handmade fresh. And a whole lot of people eat at Willis Canteen.
Gado gado is an Indonesian salad with a thousand different variations depending where you eat it and how you order it. It’s kind of like fried rice or stir fry – it doesn’t have any agreed upon set of ingredients, but rather it’s a mixture of whatever is available. The one exception is peanut sauce – every gado gado has peanut sauce. The reason Willis Canteen is so popular is because Willis Utama, chef and mum of the Willis Canteen family, makes every gado gado to order in a traditional mortar and pestle. Almost all day she mashes deep-fried peanuts with coconut sugar, tamarind juice, chillies and water into thick gravy. Into that goes tofu, bean sprouts, water spinach and whatever other ingredients her customers have asked for.
Emerald Utama, Willis’ son and the canteen’s maître d', says on a busy day they start getting calls from 7am requesting gado gado with each customer’s particular preference. All the regulars know to call in because any unfortunate walk-in asking for a gado gado will have to wait an hour for their meal. It’s not so bad if you order anything else, which we’d recommend you do if you’re in a hurry.
If it’s a rainy day, Utama suggests a bowl of sop buntut (ox-tail stock) with a side of iga penyet (beef ribs and sambal). “It's comfort food, something that you'd run to your in-laws or mum to make in the morning,” he says. The ribs look deceptively dry but attack them with your fork and they’ll collapse like a juicy cake. Before being deep-fried, Utama’s dad, who cooks anything not gado-gado related, marinates the ribs, slow cooks them for several hours before finally deep-frying them to give them a juicy centre and a crunchy edge.
A typical Indonesian street food is batagor, homemade fish cakes splashed with a chunky, sweet peanut sauce or sate padang, beef tongues lathered in a West Sumatran-style thickened curry. If you go on a Thursday check the specials board. Each week’s extra menu item is decided by whatever is requested most by the restaurant’s community. “There are a lot of students here and people who haven't been back in Indonesia for a long time, and if they miss something we cook it for them,” says Utama.
197/392 Jones Street, Ultimo
(02) 8040 8372
Mon 12pm–3.30pm and 5pm–8.30pm
Wed to Fri 12pm–3.30pm and 5pm–8.30pm
Sat to Sun 12pm–3pm and 5pm–8.30pm
Local Knowledge is a weekly Broadsheet series shining a light on the unassuming, authentic Sydney restaurants that are worthy of appreciation beyond the neighbourhoods they serve. See the rest of the series here.