If you’re keeping track, Rickshaw Republic is not the first place in Chicago to serve Asian-style wings, those sticky-salty-sweet, crunchy-syrupy splendors in whose face buffalo wings cower in embarrassment. And yet the version here is its own beast, messy pinions coated in a batter of cornstarch, flour and eggs, twice-fried so hard their skin crackles off like Rice Krispies, then dredged in a gingery, chili-backed soy glaze.
You’re crazy if you start your meal at Rickshaw Republic with anything else. Which is, I admit, a backhanded compliment, since the wings are one of the few items on the menu that diverge from this adorable spot’s primary focus: Indonesian food, a cuisine long scarce in Chicago restaurants. Rickshaw’s focus is on the country’s street foods, the kind of stuff you’d find in stalls at a market. One stall might serve satay, here represented in beef, chicken, pork and tempeh iterations; perhaps another would hawk martabak, “pancakes” (similar to flat egg rolls) stuffed with a mixture of ground beef, eggs and onion. Rickshaw’s takes on these dishes feel tepid and lacking; the beef skewers, though tender, are one big note of sweetness, and the martabak is similarly spiceless, and in want of a sauce—in want of pretty much anything more than the polite little dish of pickles provided—to punch things up. The same critique extends to the gado gado, a traditional Indonesian salad that here presents itself as a random assortment of underseasoned steamed vegetables dredged in a heavy cashew dressing, salvaged only by one gorgeous over-medium egg.
As flat as these dishes were, others proved intriguing. Batagor—deep-fried balls of ground shrimp and fish stuffed into tofu—have an unexpected, and unexpectedly pleasurable, springiness. Apply the house sambal (chili) paste liberally to counteract the rich peanut sauce, which, if you order carelessly, can show up one too many times throughout the meal. Nasi lemak, another traditional Indonesian dish, places sweet, fluffy coconut rice center stage, flanking it with plain slices of omelette, fried anchovies tossed with peanuts and your choice of curry chicken or coconut-braised beef (rendang). Even with the agreeable fishiness of the anchovies, this is still a pretty subtle dish, with none of the bracing heat or pounding spice you expect from other Asian cuisines (e.g., Thai, Szechuanese). This can make it challenging to appreciate Rickshaw, especially when my servers on both visits exuded none of the geniality that a place like this could greatly benefit from.
And yet, I left each meal appreciating this restaurant because there is just so much here to like. I like the creative installations of parasols and dolls and masks adorning every inch of wall and ceiling. I like the BYOB, no-corkage-fee policy. (Who wouldn’t?) And I really like the desserts: petite, delightful, refreshing treats such as the es doger, a jackfruit shaved ice, and the es cendol, a palm-sugar syrup and coconut-milk liquid poured over ice and laden with tapioca-ish twirls made from mung-bean flour that I can best describe as turquoise spaetzle. I especially liked when no one was looking and I put the tiny spoon aside, picked up the glass and took it back like a shot.