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Rasa Rasa Brings Big Indonesian Flavor to the Mission

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A bowl loaded with beef rendang, coconut white rice, shrimp chips and a salad.
The beef rendang platter is one of the classic Indonesian dishes customers can find at Rasa Rasa Kitchen, a new restaurant in San Francisco's Mission District. (Luke Tsai/KQED)

In 2020 — March 5, to be exact — Joe Sharp and Patty Tang debuted Rasa Rasa, a shiny new food truck with a mission to initiate San Francisco diners into the bold, spice-forward universe of Indonesian home cooking — a universe populated by rich laksa noodle soups, fiery sambals and tenderly slow-cooked beef rendang.

Of course, we all know what happened next: Less than two weeks after the truck served its first bowls of laksa at the Parklab Gardens street food park in Mission Bay, COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns hit the Bay Area, and every food business in the region closed for the better part of three months.

There’s a sense of poetry, then, to the fact that Sharp and Tang opened their first brick-and-mortar restaurant, Rasa Rasa Kitchen, exactly four years after the truck’s debut. As of March 5, they’ve brought their home-style Indonesian cooking to a sit-down setting in the Mission, with a bigger and even more creative menu.

Looking back on those early months of 2020 now, Sharp says, “It was really tough, but we didn’t give up.” Thankfully, business picked up that summer, when everyone was going stir crazy and, for many San Franciscans, takeout from a food truck was the best available option. But in a very real sense, Rasa Rasa fought an uphill battle just to survive its first year.

Exterior of a restaurant on a street corner, with the sun setting in the background. The sign reads, "Rasa Rasa."
The restaurant offers a larger, more family-style menu compared to Rasa Rasa’s original food truck. (Courtesy of Rasa Rasa)

For fans of Indonesian cuisine, the restaurant’s arrival is game-changing news. There have, of course, been a handful of Indonesian restaurants in the Bay Area going back as far as the early 1980s. But until the pandemic spurred a new wave of ambitious food trucks and informal pop-ups, the cuisine has largely languished in obscurity in our region. From the beginning, Sharp and Tang’s motivation has been to introduce Indonesian food to a wider audience — to, as Sharp puts it, prove to people that it’s “actually very tasty.”

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On that front, the Rasa Rasa food truck has been a resounding success. Its spicy shrimp laksa, in particular, has built up a dedicated fanbase. When the San Francisco Chronicle named Rasa Rasa one of the Bay Area’s top food trucks, it praised the noodle soup’s “alluring spice punch tamped with a faintly sweet coconut broth.”

So it was a bold decision for Rasa Rasa to not offer the laksa at the restaurant, except perhaps as an occasional weekend special. Sharp says part of their reasoning was that they didn’t want to cannibalize their own business. The food truck is stationed less than two miles away from the restaurant, after all, and they still want customers to have a reason to go to the truck.

Beyond that, though, Sharp says the concept behind the restaurant is to serve all of the food in a more traditional family-style format, with large dishes of curry, fried fish and sambal-smothered vegetables placed at the center of the table for everyone to share. Sharp is hoping that old customers who only ever ordered the laksa will come to the restaurant to try Rasa Rasa’s turmeric fried chicken, rica rica (a saucy pork belly stew) and beef rendang.

The rendang I tried during my visit was super-savory, tender enough to pull apart with a spoon, with an intricately spiced gravy that proved to be a fantastic vehicle for devouring a large quantity of fragrant coconut rice. Best of all was the little dollop of chunky sambal that came on the side — a chunky, shrimp paste–spiked version, hot enough to set my tongue on fire.

Without any prompting, Sharp concedes that his food isn’t strictly “authentic,” mostly to accommodate the more limited palate — and spice tolerance — of most American diners. If, for example, he made the rica rica the way he would serve it in Indonesia, it would be way too spicy for the vast majority of his customers to eat. Instead, he serves the spicy sauce on the side. True chileheads can of course ask for more.

Beef rendang overflowing from the inside of a sourdough bread bowl.
Only in San Francisco? Beef rendang served inside a sourdough bread bowl. (Courtesy of Rasa Rasa)

Apart from the spice adjustment, Sharp and Tang have also embraced the restaurant’s Northern California home. So, for instance, during dinner service, the gado gado (a kind of salad with both raw and cooked vegetables) comes in a baked tortilla bowl — a nod to the Mission’s vibrant Mexican food scene. And while Rasa Rasa does offer its beef rendang the traditional Indonesian way, over rice, you can also order it served inside the most San Francisco of vessels: a Boudin sourdough bread bowl. The most delicious way to eat this rendang bread bowl, Sharp says, is to just pull it apart with your hands after letting the sauce soak in.

According to Sharp, the best thing about opening the restaurant is seeing the way that newcomers to Indonesian food have really embraced the cuisine. He recalls one recent customer’s response to his first rendang: “It’s so good! I feel like I have a parade of spice in my mouth!”

Rasa Rasa Kitchen is open Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m.–3 p.m. for lunch and 5 p.m.–9 p.m. for dinner, at 2200 Bryant St. in San Francisco. The Rasa Rasa food truck is open 11 a.m.–8 p.m. daily inside Parklab Gardens at 1379 4th St. in San Francisco.

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