On this particular Wednesday night, Toba was the setting for an increasingly rare phenomenon in Rangoon’s trendy Yaw Min Gyi neighborhood: that of walking into a restaurant and realizing that you are the only Westerner there. It wasn’t for lack of patrons either; the narrow space that’s reminiscent of a railroad car was almost full, which is always a good sign.
The purportedly 24-hour restaurant, which takes its name from the world’s largest volcanic lake on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, opened its doors without much fanfare in late 2014. Luckily, the food is much more Indonesian than the restaurant is 24/7, and while it’s certainly a good late-night option, reports are that the restaurant does close its doors sporadically during those key hours when the boundary between late night and early morning blurs.
The menu gives customers reason to hope. It’s a thick binder with laminated page after page of Indonesian and Indo-Chinese dishes (with plenty of options for vegetarians), and though the prices aren’t listed, they range from 1,700-4,900 kyats (about US$2 to US$5) per dish. The restaurant doesn’t sell beer or alcohol, but the waiters are happy to pop into the nearby convenience store to purchase what you please for a mere 100 kyats surcharge.
Décor-wise, the kindest thing that can be said about Toba’s pleather booths and mismatched tables is that the token efforts at creating an ambience are endearing. The walls of the ground floor have been painted with giant if rudimentary murals inspired by Indonesian landscapes, and it’s remarkable how closely the shade of green selected resembles that tempera green used by schoolchildren for finger painting. The draw of a place like Toba, however, lies not in its furniture or place mats, but strictly in the food.
Begin your meal with the gado gado, a generous serving of steamed mixed veggies topped with a healthy dose of peanut sauce and krupuk, which are essentially delicious fried “crispy bits.” The dish is sweet and peanutty with a perfect underlying spicy kick, and is a good way to introduce the palate to the different range of flavors that the meal is about to unveil. Accompany this with one of the many varieties of nasi goreng on the menu, since the fried rice varieties at Toba are some of the less greasy I’ve come across in the city.
Other highlights include the sapi rendang, a coconut milk, lemongrass beef stew that’s surprisingly tender and flavorful. With ramekin-sized portions, be sure to order more than one. While the udung sambal had the right hint of shrimp paste and tamarind, there was something about the prawns that didn’t taste fresh, which is worrying given the fact that our photographer was denied access to the kitchen because it was “not tidy.” The perkedel kentang (potato dumplings) were tasty if unmemorable and similarly, the chicken skewers were well-seasoned with turmeric and a hint of curry, though they in turn were a little dry.
The meal as a whole was plentiful, satisfying and cheap, which seems to be exactly what Toba is going for. As far as Indonesian cuisine goes, Toba is certainly noteworthy among the options in Rangoon, though if it were located in Jakarta or in some lost little alley of Bandung, it wouldn’t stand much of a chance. The risk with a menu so big in a restaurant that’s relatively small is that the kitchen does some of the more popular dishes very well and often, but then it fails at others. (Whatever you do, stay away from the tahu isi.)
Still, I’ll be returning to Toba, if only in hopes of trying their elusive tempeh, which everybody seems to hear good things about, even if only a lucky few have ever had the privilege of sampling it.