My Grandmother Opened One of the Bay Area's First Indonesian Restaurants

Save ArticleSave Article

Failed to save article

Please try again

A woman in a red apron opens a bottle of wine at a restaurant in this old photograph from the 1980s.
The author's grandmother, Helena Lomanto, opens a bottle of wine at Boroburdur, the Chinese-Indonesian restaurant she ran in San Francisco during the 1980s. It was one of the Bay Area's first Indonesian restaurants. (Courtesy of Helena Lomanto)


y childhood trips to the Bay Area were a chance for my family to revisit old haunts. Whenever my dad would drive us down the long strip of highway from Sacramento to San Francisco, he would point out every memorable cue through the car window. “That’s the hospital you were born in” or “I used to come here for shakes and soft serve” or, my favorite, “that’s where your grandmother’s old restaurant used to be.”

In fact, my grandmother, Helena Lomanto, was one of the Bay Area’s very first Indonesian restaurateurs — though I didn’t know it at the time.

That restaurant we’d pass by is now Waikiki Hawaiian BBQ, a humble takeout facade on San Pablo Avenue’s El Cerrito strip. I know it best from old pictures, where my grandmother’s signage displayed the name “BOROBUDUR” in all caps. Inside the restaurant was a takeout counter and pink laminated menus. Served hot and fresh: ayam goreng, or thinly battered fried chicken with sambal goreng on the side, and a variety of rice plates and vegetable stir fries. Like many Asian restaurants in the Bay Area during the ’80s and ’90s, the menu was a mix of timeless classics like bakmi goreng (an Indonesian take on Chinese chow mein) and more fusion-y, Americanized flavors.

My grandmother loved to tell me stories about her days in the restaurant and how she learned about the business when she first immigrated stateside and worked as the lettuce slicer at Burger King. Soon enough, she and my grandfather would open not one, but three different Chinese-Indonesian restaurants in the Bay Area — one in San Francisco, one in El Cerrito and yet another in Daly City.

And so, when I heard that her restaurants hadn’t done well, I wanted to know more. I wanted to know why it wasn’t bustling with people. After all, my friends used to fight for a spot at my dining table.


Later, my father explained it to me: Borobudur wasn’t an El Cerrito hotspot because people don’t travel to El Cerrito for Chinese-Indonesian cuisine. There’s a word for it in Indonesian — hokee, which roughly translates to “luck.” The location of that restaurant, plus the exact timing of the cuisine in that specific locale, was not hokee. By the late ’90s, her third and final restaurant — Daly City’s Plantation Golden Fried Chicken — had also closed.

Photograph dated April 13, 1991 shows the facade of a strip mall restaurant at dusk. The sign reads, "Plantation Golden Fried Chicken" in red letters.
Plantation Golden Fried Chicken in Daly City was the last of Lomanto’s restaurants. It closed in the late ’90s. (Courtesy of Helena Lomanto)

Over the past few years, Indonesian restaurants across the Bay Area have once again been struggling. My standard meeting places with visiting relatives saw less and less traffic in the years before the pandemic: Jayakarta in Berkeley shuttered its windows in the summer of 2019. Another restaurant called Borobudur — often cited as the oldest Indonesian restaurant in San Francisco — soon followed.

As it turns out, that Borobudur was my grandparents’ first restaurant. I didn’t make the connection until recently, when my grandmother showed me some photographs of her San Francisco restaurant: Scrawled in the caption was the same name, the same Post Street address. New owners must have taken over the business sometime in the early ’90s.

What I knew about Borobudur were the stories she’d tell me. My grandmother’s tenure at the San Francisco restaurant saw its heyday in the 1980s. For a while, the business thrived — especially on Tuesdays, when a certain thin, middle-aged woman would eat at my grandmother’s table during her lunch break. Every time she came in, a horde of other customers would follow, and, in our family lore, this mystery woman came to be regarded as the restaurant’s good luck charm.

Man and a woman pose for a photograph in the dining room of their restaurant. A handwritten caption reads, "Borobudur Resto, 1981. 700 Post St., San Francisco, CA."
Lomanto and her husband pose in Borobudur’s dining room during the restaurant’s heyday in the early ’80s. (Courtesy of Helena Lomanto)

In those years, the clientele at Borobudur was diverse, consisting mostly of locals looking for a good hole-in-the-wall Asian food stop. The restaurant’s biggest asset was loyalty. Regular customers would come back again and again to order from the menu’s bilingual offerings — satay ayam (chicken skewers with peanut sauce) or honey walnut prawns made with extra mayonnaise. Even the mystery woman made her way around the menu during her weekly visits.

But when the 1989 earthquake struck, in all its 6.9-magnitude glory, Borobudur’s customers proved to be superstitious as well. My grandmother speaks about how she felt the ground shake beneath her feet. Trinkets fell off shelves. Plates rattled in cupboards. Everyone inside the restaurant scrambled for cover. After that, the good luck charm woman did not return, and the Tuesday lunch rush slowed in the weeks that followed.

The restaurant’s hokee, it seemed, had run out.

I’d always imagined the restaurant having the bustling atmosphere I see in my own favorite restaurants. But my grandmother used to regale us about the toll that cooking took on her body. Eventually, retirement called, and she quickly realized that there were other mouths to feed. Mainly, my sister’s and mine.

Growing up, I lived with my grandparents as a part of our family’s intergenerational household. Every night, I would devour a home-cooked meal from my grandma’s well-seasoned wok. Sometimes it was a steaming bowl of pickled greens and pork bone soup — so sour and scintillating that I would call it “refreshing soup.” Sometimes it would be a sweet soy sauce, onion and potato stir-fry that we called “Hayley potatoes,” because it was the only plate our neighbor Hayley would finish. I had every sweet and savory treat I desired because of her prowess in the kitchen.

A young woman poses with her grandmother in front of a birthday during the grandmother's 90th birthday celebration. The older woman wears a pink sash that reads, "Happy 90th Birthday."
The author and her grandmother pose for a photo during the grandmother’s 90th birthday celebration. (Courtesy of Giovanna Lomanto)

My grandma spent her retirement taking care of the two of us, cooking most (if not all) of our meals, and driving us to and from school in our new Sacramento home. After my grandfather passed away, my mother started taking up her mantle in the kitchen, and I began to desire culinary talents of my own.

A few years ago, my grandmother sent me six notebooks filled with her handwritten recipes. Excited to flip through and learn her secrets, I opened the recipe books only to find that they were all written by hand in Dutch, the language she spoke in a colonized Indonesia. Her loopy cursive fell to sharp corners on her p’s and a’s, and much of the pencil lead was wearing off the faded pages. Suddenly, I was no longer worried about cooking replications of her food. I just wanted to preserve the pages, to seal into memory all the knowledge she had bestowed upon these precious artifacts.

The recipe books are in my room, wrapped in a plastic bag and some rubber bands, waiting for the day that I learn Dutch. Maybe it’ll never happen — maybe they’ll be some indecipherable family heirloom I’ll pass down to my children.

One thing is certain, though. Along with the other keepsakes I’ve collected from my grandmother’s closet of trinkets and memories, I’ll make sure to share at least one photo for posterity: my grandmother standing in front of the glass window outside her El Cerrito restaurant, surrounded by her husband and her sisters. All of them joined together in the physical space where she once shared a taste of her home.

The joy she exudes, in that picture and onwards, has always been the source of my hokee.

A family poses for a photo in front of a restaurant. A handwritten label reads, "Borobudur Restaurant, San Pablo Ave., El Cerrito, CA."
Helena Lomanto and her family pose for a portrait in front of their El Cerrito restaurant. Today the space is occupied by Waikiki Hawaiian BBQ. (Courtesy of Helena Lomanto)