By Brianna Chu and May S. Ruiz
Old Pasadena is a commercial district on the westernmost part of the city comprising 22 blocks where an eclectic mix of enterprises happily co-exist. There are museums and hotels, hotels converted into residential apartments and office spaces. There are a multitude of businesses – clothing retailers and coffee shops, dining venues and dress accessories stores, cosmetics shops and cinemas, jewelry and kitchen stores, nightclubs and sports bars, tech-selling stores and telecommunications service providers – housed in beautifully restored, historic buildings. You name it, it’s there.
Bone Kettle, an Indonesian fusion restaurant on North Raymond Avenue, has recently joined the numerous food establishments in this melting pot Pasadenans refer to as Old Town. It is co-owned by the Tjahyadi Brothers, Eric and Executive Chef Erwin, who immigrated to the San Gabriel Valley from Indonesia with their parents over two decades ago. They arrived with practically only the clothes on their back, except for an English dictionary to help them get by in their adopted country, and a few Indonesian cookbooks to remind them of home.
After 20 years, Chef Erwin went back to Indonesia on a quest of self-discovery. Through his travels in his birthplace, he reconnected with his childhood as he once more smelled the fragrance of spices that flavored the complex dishes he grew up with.
That reminder of his heritage inspired Chef Erwin to open a restaurant which deliciously blends heirloom recipes from his mother’s and grandmother’s cookbooks with local California ingredients and French classical techniques. His training at Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena and apprenticeships under Wolfgang Puck and Trey Foshee have prepared him for the intricacies of creating unforgettable dishes. Thus, Bone Kettle was born.
“Living in the San Gabriel Valley, we would frequent Pasadena,” Chef Erwin informs us by email on his choice of restaurant location. “And it’s always been a dream to open in Old Town. It’s charming and rich in history; we love all the old buildings. Being here makes us feel like we’re part of not only a community but of something bigger.
“Because of the emergence of ever more Asian restaurants in Pasadena, we felt the city is prime for our food. At the same time, we felt compelled to represent our cuisine in our own authentic voice and perspective.”
And the community has been exceptionally welcoming, discloses Chef Erwin. “The reaction has been positive and overwhelmingly warm. We love it when customers are able to make a very personal connection and relate the cooking experience with their own. They appreciate that Bone Kettle is a family-run restaurant for Pasadena families and friends. In turn, we are enjoying getting to know our diners and making new friends.
“We want our patrons to remember their dinner at Bone Kettle as something that reflects the highest standards of quality food, with imaginative dishes of great flavors,” adds Chef Erwin. “I hope that through the food we serve, they see that we passionately care about the guest experience. And that, ultimately, we are able to tell our story.
Brianna’s review below speaks to Chef Erwin’s love of food and culinary mastery.
When my old high school friends and I met up after we all graduated to share our experiences over the past four years, we noticed that despite the disparate locations in which we studied, all of us missed the range of food available here in Los Angeles County. Even just in the Pasadena area, we do not lack for diversity of cuisines; the Bone Kettle in Old Town exemplifies the broad variety of food which we enjoy.
You can expect an Indonesian and Southeast Asian food experience when coming to the Bone Kettle, a small, family-owned restaurant and bar with a modern and chic atmosphere on Raymond Avenue. It’s only about a year and a half old, and full of surprising contrasts. While it has a young and modern feel not only in its decor, but also by its playlist – when we came in, there was relaxed electronic music softly playing – the restaurant feels homey and comfortable, too, as the head chef’s father served us plates that his son had just made, explaining to us what the dish was.
May and I aren’t particularly big fans of alcohol, so we ordered two non-alcoholic drinks: the dragonfruit lychee lemonade, and a raspberry and yuzu drink. The dragonfruit lemonade tastes entirely like lychee and dragonfruit, which definitely brought me back to my childhood eating dragonfruit and lychee jellies. The raspberry and yuzu drink was a gorgeous ombré of light lilac into deep magenta and tasted as close to candy as actual fruit can, while also having an incredibly refreshing and fragrant taste.
We were pleasantly bombarded with samples of many of Bone Kettle’s small sharing plates. Shortly after we sat down, two dishes were placed on our table. While slightly spicy, the papaya and shrimp salad was also tangy and delightfully crunchy. Tips of salty, fall-off-the-bone tender oxtail with freshly fried and crisp slices of potato followed, in perfect contrast to the salad.
One of the restaurant’s favorites, the oxtail dumpling, is understandably popular. The dumpling was served in deeply savory and rich but also slightly acidic sauce, complementing the succulent oxtail dumpling, whose filling dripped with au jus and marinade.
Their kroket are fluffy and delicate, filled with an incredibly smooth paste of beef with pieces of carrot and peas, but surprisingly, it was served in hoisin sauce. The combination dumbfounded me; I could never have imagined that these two things would ever taste great together, let alone be found in the same dish, but I was pleasantly surprised by the depth that the hoisin sauce brought to the lighter, more one-toned kroket.
I managed to snag a bite of deeply umami and also somehow cheesy tartare, which was served on a shrimp cracker; after which, we were treated to shots of the restaurant’s famous bone broth – incredibly rich but eminently drinkable. Every sip is clearly imbued with the incredible flavor of bone marrow. This is not a broth that is merely a vessel for other ingredients – it has its own flavor that demands attention. When waiters circled back with second rounds of bone broth, hands from all tables immediately reached towards the tray for seconds.
Even more irresistible bites followed: Hamachi crudo with green onions and peppers and fried chicken wings. The sweetness of the fresh yellowtail made the crudo light and addictive, with a light pop of heat from the peppers. I had my eye on the tray as it went around the room and I unabashedly took the last one when it was offered.
The fried chicken wings with Thai chilis and a sweet sauce are another of the Bone Kettle’s popular dishes, for a reason – the wing was perfectly crispy, the sweetness from the sauce woken up by the kick of the Thai chili, and the chicken was juicy and perfectly cooked. May started volunteering me to take every leftover sample of food they brought out. I protested, but mostly out of pride…
A third round of broth came out – and it was gone in a matter of seconds. As I drank the broth, I marveled at its richness, but as soon as I finished a sip, I noticed how light it was and immediately reached for more.
The penultimate appetizer was a Rendang rice fritter with a filling of short rib, slow cooked for 15 hours, and cheese. The cheese really shone through, and the pulled short rib was pillow-soft. In the cross-section of my bite, I could see each individual grain of rice used to make the coating. The rice was crispy on the outside, and not too soft within, maintaining the structural integrity of each grain of rice for some texture.
The finale: a platter of drier, crunchy coconut-braised fried chicken with a spicy salsa made from an unusual set of vegetables.
As the restaurant is sandwiched between a burger joint and a barbecue place, some might think that the Bone Kettle would struggle to compete with such classic American favorites. However, I’d argue that the Bone Kettle is perfectly situated to exemplify the diversity of flavors in Southern California.
The Bone Kettle is the kind of place where I’d want to take my girlfriends to on a weekend for some good food, and catch up on our weeks. I can’t wait to go back and see what more delights they have to offer on their full menu!
Brianna Chu, a guest opinion guest writer for Beacon Media, was born and raised in Pasadena. She loves to cook and to eat, is a lifelong viewer of Food Network, and enthusiastically introduced the tradition of Thanksgiving dinners to her British and European friends while earning her degree at the University of St Andrews. While they absolutely hated going around the table and saying what they were grateful for every year, they also loved the excuse to get together and feast with friends enough to endure it anyway.