It’s a quiet morning in Old Sacramento, and sunlight spills into the streets of the popular tourist destination, warming the wooden sidewalks and peeking under the roof of Indo Cafe’s covered patio, just a spike’s throw away from the railroad tracks. From the tiny kitchen in the rear of the cafe comes the steady thunk of a knife on wood as Tessa Scaife prepares vegetables for the lunch crowd.
Out front, sitting at one of the well-worn tables, her husband Jim Scaife is answering a question he gets a lot: What in the world is a place serving from-scratch Indonesian food (as far as Jim knows, it’s the Capital Region’s only Indonesian spot) doing plunked down amid the steaks and saloons of Old Sacramento?
“Everyone knows about Thai food. There’s a Thai restaurant on every corner, a lot of Indian restaurants and other ethnic food, but not too much is known about Indonesian food and it’s really excellent,” Jim says. “Our challenge is educating people about our food. I take it as a mission to do it person by person.”
The story of Indo Cafe goes back about 17 years to a man named Luki Ong, who took over the place, previously a deli, and started an Indonesian restaurant with his wife. Back then there was no kitchen — Ong would cook food from home and heat it up in a microwave. Over time, he expanded, adding a small kitchen, and after about seven years sold the business to another Indonesian couple. They ran the place until about three years ago when they, too, decided to seek a buyer.
That was when New Yorkers Jim and Tessa decided to travel west. They met up with friends in the capital who gave them a tour of Old Sac, pointed out Indo Cafe and mentioned casually that the owners were looking to sell.
It was kismet. The Scaifes had been wanting to start a restaurant but were daunted by the high rents and failure rates of small businesses in New York.
They returned from California to find themselves in the stormy embrace of Hurricane Sandy. “We were living in an apartment right on the ocean in Queens, and it was pretty devastating,” Jim says. “We had time to think, and we said, ‘We’d better check this thing out in Sacramento. Who knows?’”
They visited the restaurant in January, a canny move that gave them a chance to observe the flow of customer traffic during the off-season. They decided they could make a go of things, signed papers, packed up their stuff and in March of 2013, “We crossed the George Washington Bridge on Highway 80 and didn’t get off until we got here,” Jim says.
At this point, it’s nearly noon, and the lunch crowd begins to trickle in. First up is a young woman in hospital scrubs and a friend. They’ve been here before, and Tessa greets them with a warm, “Hello! Nice to see you again!” Tessa doesn’t say much, at least on this morning, but when she does it’s with a warmth that resonates. More customers come in, including a quartet of sharply dressed office workers, a young man with gauges in his ears the size of quarters and a family out for some daytime activities.
It’s a pretty representative sample of Indo Cafe’s customer base. There are Indonesians and other Asians along with Indo-Dutch, descendants of Dutch colonists, many of whom settled in the Capital Region (a group of Sacramento Indo-Dutch meet the last Sunday of every month at the cafe). Workers from area businesses make up a big chunk of the lunch crowd, and then there are tourists.
Lunches are usually busy, the restaurant dies down from about 2:30 to 5 p.m. and then dinner is hit and miss.
Jim would like to grow his dinner business and sell more takeout meals, which currently account for about 15 percent of business. But like many mom-and-pop shops, he’s in that awkward spot between not having enough business to justify new hires and yet unable to handle additional business without a few extra hands. And like a lot of downtown proprietors, he wonders what Sacramento’s new Entertainment and Sports Complex, scheduled to open in 2016, will portend.
“My first impression was that it’s going to be good. Then, I thought, well, you know it’s also going to bring a lot of competition from other restaurants, and there’s going to be hotels with restaurants and fancy this, that and the other. But I think, in general, it has to be good because a rising tide lifts all boats. I think it will help us,” he says.
Seen in action, you’d think Jim has been running front-of-house all his life as he explains dishes to newbies. In fact, this is his first restaurant job. Born in Harlingen in far-south Texas, he spent most of his career behind a computer.
He often starts first-timers on nasi kuning, or yellow rice. It’s a hearty dish of rice cooked with turmeric and topped with a scrambled egg surrounded by chunks of tender beef infused with layers of spices, spicy peanuts, fried anchovies and tempeh orek made of fermented soy.
“Whenever I get somebody in here that’s never had this kind of food before, I try to take time to explain it to them. Once they sit down to have a meal, they love it,” he says.
It seems to be working. Scattered among the many rave reviews of Indo Cafe on Yelp are frequent references to the “very friendly,” “very helpful” owners.
Tessa mostly runs the kitchen, stirring and frying on her 6-burner stove as she turns out generous portions of favorites like nasi goreng (fried rice) that has a completely different flavor and texture than Chinese fried rice. She learned the business early as one of eight children in the city of Tegal in Central Java, where her parents ran a popular restaurant.
Everything’s made from scratch, which sometimes means hunting through Asian and Mexican markets for ingredients. It also means that it’s easy to make a dish vegetarian or vegan.
The couple works hard but tries not to hit the point of exhaustion.
“My wife and I can’t stay here 12 hours a day every day,” Jim says. “The first year, we opened seven days a week, and finally we realized it was not working so we take Mondays off.” They also take vacation from time to time.
It’s important to Jim that he has time and energy for his mission as an Indonesian food evangelist.
“I spend a lot of time talking to people,” he says. “It feels good at night when we close down and I tell my wife, ‘We got at least two new customers today.’ Or, ‘Two new families that came in tried it and really liked it.’ I know they’re going to come back, and they do.”
The lunch hour is almost over. The quartet of young workers have, as employees are wont to do, spent their time out of the office talking about the office. They leave behind only a few gossipy echoes and four cleaned plates.