Where Authenticity is Taken Seriously: Blue Toba Indonesian in Ashland
When a restaurant claims to serve authentic cultural food, most of us don’t question the claim. Taking a look at Blue Toba, the owners are happy to share what the word authentic means to them.
Blue Toba in Ashland started out in a food truck in 2013. Eventually Owner and Chef Birong Hutbarat and his wife Leslie moved their restaurant to a permanent location on Ashland Street. When they first conceived of the idea to open the first Indonesian restaurant in Ashland, they knew they needed to make their food as genuine as possible.
“Not many people are familiar with Indonesian cuisine and the alchemy it takes to prepare even one meal,” says Birong. “We have some dishes on our menu that have 12 to 15 different spices in them, most of which you cannot find in the states.”
He considers his work a “labor of love.” His training began when he moved back to Indonesia to study his home’s culinary methods and learn from the best chefs in the area. Throughout this learning process he realized the importance in providing customers with the freshest and most authentic ingredients.
This pursuit brings him back to Indonesia every year to procure the spices he needs for Blue Toba. When he can’t make the trip, he has his relatives send spices to him. Leslie says, “He brings back with him about one hundred pounds of dried spices. When we run out, his brother sends them to us from the fresh markets of Indonesia. Even our chilis are dried in the Indonesian sun and brought back by the chef or sent to us by his brother.”
Birong ensures each spice he procures from Indonesia is essential. When he runs out, substituting the spice with the closest thing he can find locally isn’t an option. He requires high quality and Indonesian-native spices for his cooking, and customers haven’t complained in the slightest. In fact, locals praise Birong’s spice-filled dishes like Beef Rendang with Rice and Opor Ayam.
“I love everything about Indonesian food,” Birong says. “It is complex, yet somehow simple, if that makes sense. The flavors reveal themselves in layers and every bite transports you to the culture and country of Indonesia.” He hails from North Sumatra in the Lake Toba region, where many of the dishes at the restaurant originate.
He says, “Food is culture. In Indonesia, everything centers around food and the spices it takes to make the food what it is. All day cooking, even through the night is common there. This is why I hold true to the authenticity. I won’t cut corners or replace any Indonesian spice with something remotely similar. I put my heart and soul and country’s traditions into every plate of food I prepare.”
September of last year Blue Toba was the first Indonesian restaurant to be featured on popular Food Network show Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives hosted by Guy Fieri. “Being featured on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives was surreal and such an honor,” both Leslie and Birong say. “It was high energy, super enthusiastic and so much fun to film. The dishes Guy Fieri chose off the menu were two very unique, authentic dishes.”
They cooked Rendang with Fieri, “a spicy beef curry. Using Painted Hill grass-fed beef, cooks slow for four to five hours in about twelve different spices and needs to be stirred and tended to every five to 10 minutes. The other dish is a mild curry called Opor. It is made with candlenut, which is difficult to find in the states. It is a creamy, earthy, full-of-flavor curry made from scratch just like the Rendang is.”
Birong and Leslie are ready to give any appetizing suggestion to customers unsure of what to order when dining at Blue Toba. The restaurant has garnered a strong following that continues to grow no doubt due to the true Indonesian spices used in each dish.
11:30 am – 7:30 pm, Tuesday – Saturday
1690 Ashland St, Ashland