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Wednesday, March 6, 2013

A spin around the globe for dinner

A point on the globe

My 8-year-old son is not what you would call an adventurous eater. His tastes veer heavily to chicken fingers and Kraft mac and cheese. Given the choice, nine times out of 10 he would prefer to stay home for dinner rather than head out to a restaurant, happy to get by on a bowl of cereal. At least when we do go out, he can usually find something to eat no matter how exotic the cuisine - fortunately, rice and basic grilled meats are staples in many of the world's cuisines (even if mac and cheese is not).

The other night it was just me and him, and I was eager to go somewhere interesting. We had just been to Nam Phuong a few nights before (he got the BBQ pork and rice, perfect!), so Vietnamese was out. I floated Mexican ... "no." Burgers? "Nah." Indian? "Let's just stay home." I needed a hook. Something to slap any thoughts of Kraft processed cheese into submission. Then I remembered the globe up in his room.

I nonchalantly but optimistically offered up, "How bout we spin the globe, you point to a spot, and we'll find a restaurant that makes that kind of food?" He thought about that notion for a few seconds, then nodded with an "OK." Success. Or was it? It was at that point that I realized this could all go horribly wrong. What would we do if his finger point landed on the vast, empty expanse of Siberia? Or South Dakota, for that matter? We were in the hands of fate.

Thumbs up for $1 lamb skewers!
We ran upstairs and grabbed the globe. My son offered to close his eyes, lest any visual bias influence the point of his finger. I spun the globe, watching as the countries of the world flew by in a blur, wondering where we would land. He reached out and pressed his little finger into the spinning orb so that it came to a complete halt. We had landed.

Our destination was just south of the equator, mere millimeters from Singapore, an inch away from Thailand... in Padang, Indonesia. Nice! My son seemed genuinely enthused, knowing nothing about Indonesian food, but intrigued enough by the random measure of control he had exerted over our dining decision. He was ready for an adventure.

I must admit - I had never had Indonesian food in Atlanta. Malaysian, yes. But Indonesian? I'd had intentions of going to a little restaurant called Batavia over the years, but had never made it. Now was my chance, spurred on by the spinning of the globe. We drove up Buford Highway to Shallowford and headed up toward Peachtree Industrial, to a rather shabby little strip mall. Batavia's exterior was lit up with signs touting "$1 BBQ" ("is that a lot, dad?") and a $4.99 special. And once we got inside, it was clear - there was no way I could pass up that $4.99 special (three items from the steam-tray counter over rice), and my son had to go for a few skewers of BBQ lamb.

His choice was easy - lamb is his favorite meat, as long as it's not spiced up too much or ground up at all. And for a dollar? No-brainer. My choice was not so easy. There was a board full of specials with baffling names, and a steam-tray counter full of almost 20 different dishes to choose from, meats and fish and vegetables mostly served up in various forms of curry or stew. I decided to pass on the liver, the gizzards, and the tripe. I went instead for the beef rendang, a chicken curry, and collard greens with dried anchovies and garlic. The very helpful Indonesian lady behind the counter piled it all up over a large portion of rice. That's a lot of food for just $5.

When my son's BBQ lamb was brought out to the table, I had a brief moment of fear that the spices might be too much. But my son loved it. He offered me a small taste, and I must say the lamb was flavorful and nicely cooked, dusted with just the right amount of salt and cumin. He washed his skewers down with an Indonesian mango juice box sipped through a straw, bought from the adjoining Indonesian food market inside the restaurant. Then he offered a verdict of thumbs up. The spin around the globe was a success, another crack in the fortress of mediocrity built of chicken fingers and mac and cheese.

Meanwhile, my sampler plate made for a nice exploration of Indonesian tastes, too - the beef rendang was my favorite, slow-cooked in coconut milk until terribly tender, rich with spices that built up to a good, moderate burn after a few minutes. And my lychee juice box offered a florally sweet counter-punch.

We finished up and walked around the little market, admiring the fish crackers and colorful jars of Indonesian sauces for sale. Our check for the meal added up to all of 11 dollars. But it's like those ads for MasterCard - a trip with your son to Indonesia on a Friday night? Priceless.

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