Google Searchlight

There's Something Magical Happening at Warteg Warmo

Warteg Warmo is a Jakarta institution—a legendary hole-in-the-wall with food so addictively delicious that some swear it's the work of black magic.

by Gabrielle Lipton
09 December 2016, 8:39am

In a city of more than 30,000 wartegs, Warmo is king.

Warteg Warmo is a Jakarta institution—a legendary hole-in-the-wall with food so addictively delicious that some swear it's the work of black magic.

Warmo elevates the humble warteg above mere "street food." It's street food done right. If you don't believe me then try this experiment. Go to one of those fancy white tablecloth Indonesian restaurants in a tony neighborhood like Menteng. Then go to the corner of Jalan Tebet Timur and Jalan Tebet Raya, take a seat on the well-worn benches, and try a heaving plate of the best food in town. Fancy kitchens can't hold a flame to Warmo, no matter how many burners they have.

Pak Warmo first opened the warteg in 1970 on a busy corner in Tebet, then one of the capital's newest planned communities. Today, Tebet is a warren of twisting narrow streets with confusing names—a fact that has helped the neighborhood remain a pocket of grunge in an otherwise ritzy part of town.

A kilometer or so away, when the hip cocktail bars of Mega Kuningan are still pumping at 3 a.m., the party in Tebet is at down-at-heel karaoke bars with their ash-stained carpets, and tents serving (sometimes) cold Bintang beer.

It's the perfect location for a 24-hour warteg. Warmo doesn't even bother with doors. At any hour, it's is a democracy of diners—ojek drivers, police officers, and out-of-towners— feasting away while street buskers strum gnarled tunes on homemade ukuleles.

The word warteg comes from "warung Tegal"—a name that signifies the food's providence. Warungs in the city of Tegal, Central Java, sell white rice and an assortment of sides, all of which are typically presented inside a glass case. At Warmo, the food is made by a single cook who prepares a massive amount of food for seven hours straight, starting at 4 am. And then it sits, marinating in its own sauces in the tropical heat, for hours on end.

"It's really nice here," Robert, one of the diners, told me during a recent meal here. "We get to see them cook the food, so we can judge their hygiene standards. And even though it's a fairly modest shop, everyone, from the lower class to the upper class, comes here."

He's right. The walls were adorned with photos of Warmo's famous guests. Dangdut star Rhoma Irama gave it a visit. Fashion darling Ivan Gunawan did as well. Even President Joko Widodo made time to stop by Warmo for a meal.

Warmo makes so many iterations of curry, satay, sayur, and gorengan that it's nearly impossible to list them all. Its most famous creations, however, are perkedel (deep-fried potato fritters), ayam rica-rica (chicken in chili sauce), paru goreng (fried cow lung that's something like beef jerky); and, of course, tempe goreng.

"Whenever I was hanging out with friends, I would say 'hey, let's go to Warmo,'" Robert said. "There used to be so much tempe. A tall stack of it. We used to call it tempe embat—because you would eat them secretly. You would eat five, but only admit to eating three."

Budi Santoso chimed in, explaining that the pull of Warmo is so strong, that he often has to make a concerted effort to eat somewhere else. "The spiciness here hits me just right," he said. "My chubby figure is because of this food right here."

But why is Warmo so famous? It's within eyeshot of six other wartegs. What's the draw? Is the answer too unbelievable to tell?

Warmo is haunted by rumors of black magic. People say Warmo once burned to the ground, only to rise from the ashes exactly the same.

"People say when disaster falls upon you, your fortune improves," one of the diners explained.

They also say that the staff uses special mystical candles to make the food taste so good. And that the magic only works inside the warteg. Takeaway food is inedible, the rumors conclude.

It's all ridiculous, of course. But the fact that people would invent a whole backstory of magic and mystical candles just goes to show how good the food at Warmo really is. Just to be sure, I asked one of the servers about the rumors. He laughs and tells me he would rather let someone else be the judge. But if it's not magic, then what makes the food at Warmo taste so good?

"Recipes," he laughed. "We just use recipes."