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S.F.’s most prominent Indonesian chef is opening her first restaurant

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Siska Silitonga, San Francisco’s most prominent Indonesian chef through her pop-up ChiliCali and jarred sambals, is finally opening her own full-on restaurant this summer.

Called Warung Siska, the fast-casual restaurant will take over the short-lived Nam Vietnamese Brasserie space in Redwood City in July. Nam’s Anne Le Ziblatt will be a partner along with Ervan Lim, an owner of Live Fire Pizza in Napa and formerly the director of operations for M.Y. China.

It will function as a permanent home for many of the dishes that have created so many ChiliCali fans over the past six years, such as Balinese roast pork and Dungeness crab in a spicy Sumatran Padang sauce. “Warung” refers to a small restaurant in Indonesian.

“It’ll be Siska’s food: Indonesian food but my take on the food,” said Silitonga, who is from North Sumatra. “I want to do something slightly different, just to showcase Indonesian food beyond fried rice and braised beef.”

Her Bali-style pork is a prime example — she thinks Warung Siska might be the only Indonesian restaurant in the U.S. to serve it. The roasting process is similar to Filipino lechon, yielding a shatteringly crispy skin, but she bastes it with coconut oil and palm sugar to get the meat sweet and juicy. The sauce features galangal, sand ginger, turmeric and — because she can’t find a good local source for lemon basil — rau ram, which is Vietnamese coriander. (Despite Indonesia being a majority Muslim country, Silitonga cooks pork because her family is Christian.)

She plans to use local ingredients instead of importing items or searching the frozen aisle, and to work with top-notch vendors like sustainable seafood purveyor Water2Table. When Dungeness crab isn’t in season, for example, she’ll swap it out for local halibut.

She is also working on sate lilit, a Bali-style minced meat satay, but highlighting seasonal fish instead. The fish cakes will be seasoned with makrut lime leaves, grated coconut and lemongrass, then wrapped around lemongrass sticks and grilled.

“The aroma is going to be crazy, especially with the fresh fish just caught the day before,” she said.

With no need for renovations at the Nam space, Silitonga is now setting her focus on hiring — a challenge during the industry’s well-documented staffing shortage. But she’s excited to find people passionate about showcasing Indonesian food at a time when — finally — things seem to be falling into place.

Siska Siltonga of ChiliCali shows off an assortment of barbecue offerings for a pop-up. She’ll open her first restaurant, Warung Siska, in Redwood City this summer.

Celeste Noche/Special to The Chronicle 2019

In 2018, Silitonga launched San Francisco’s first Indonesian food truck, ChiliCali, as part of an incubator program with Off the Grid. She spent two years serving Google employees and getting ready to debut her truck to the public — but it never happened. The program ended, then the pandemic hit. She was devastated and thought about leaving California. Developers and landlords started contacting her about opening a restaurant, but the opportunities never felt right.

That changed when she started talking to Le Ziblatt, who wanted to reopen Nam Vietnamese Brasserie — which sat temporarily closed for much of the pandemic — but in a new way. Le Ziblatt lived in Indonesia as a Vietnamese refugee for one year as a kid and reached out to Lim, who is also Indonesian and was a fan of ChiliCali.

“I was really drawn to wanting to help solve this problem of why Indonesian cuisine is so underrepresented,” Le Ziblatt said. “Quite frankly, I wouldn’t be here and where I am today if it weren’t for the kindness of the Indonesian people. My parents told me stories of local people in Jakarta sneaking food to them late at night because they didn’t have enough to eat in the refugee camp.”

Silitonga’s experience in trying to introduce Indonesian food to more Bay Area residents — and to showcase its beauty and sophistication — rang true to Le Ziblatt, who faced similar challenges when she opened Tamarine, a modern Vietnamese restaurant in Palo Alto, in 2002.

“It felt very familiar: this struggle of helping people to understand a culture through its cuisine and how it can be so misunderstood,” Le Ziblatt said. Silitonga and Lim “are very proud of who they are and where they came from. We have that in common, which is another thing that binds us together.”

Chronicle staff writer Elena Kadvany contributed reporting.

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