The first is ample outdoor seating. Diners would be remiss not to eat in the beautiful covered patio, with plants along the edges, strings of lights overhead and even a babbling waterfall. It feels totally isolated from the harsh noise of El Camino Real, onto which the patio faces.
The second is that it has a full liquor license, which means happy hour six days a week and specialty cocktails like a passion fruit caipirinha — the national cocktail of Brazil — made with pitu cachaca rum, passion fruit syrup, fresh lime and a chili salt rim.
The third is that there is no mention of "farm to table" or artisan anything, no overpriced hamburgers or any of the other food trends currently invading the local dining landscape that many Palo Altans decry. Indo isn't old Palo Alto, but it certainly isn't new Palo Alto.
Hidden in plain sight in a massive space at El Camino and Lambert Avenue, Indo is a reincarnation of longtime Palo Alto restaurant Straits Café, which closed in 2012. Bryan Lew — who had worked with Straits owner Chris Yeo for 14 years, since the restaurant group's early beginnings in San Francisco — bought the space with partner Tommy Charoen after Yeo sold. The idea to switch ownership came from Diana Anwar, Indo's Indonesian chef de cuisine whom Lew credited with creating much of the original Straits menu.
"It's her cooking that fuels it all," he said.
Indo officially reopened in late 2012 and has continued to improve and grow, Lew said. Last winter, the restaurant expanded the bar; over the July 4th weekend, they'll be doing some interior improvements "to gear more towards that lounge feel," Lew said.
The menu is broad enough to offer something for everyone without being overwhelming. On a recent warm summer evening, we started with a sampler of four starters ($12): chicken satay, samosa, tuna tartar and poh pia, a fresh spring roll with shrimp, fried egg, hoisin sauce and peanuts, common in Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand.
The satay was a good staple; the samosa, deliciously flavorful and warm; the poh pia a refreshing snack; but the tuna tartar, disappointingly not fresh. The tartar came in dollops with red pickled ginger, tobiko (fish roe), shrimp crackers and Chinese mustard on a thick slice of cucumber. I would not order it again.
But entrees shined with what seems to be the theme at Indo — high quality without being overdone.
The seafood green curry ($24) was a standout, jam-packed with shrimp, mussels, calamari, salmon, eggplant, bok choy and carrot slices. The curry was full of spice without overwhelming the fish. Make sure to order a side of rice — jasmine, coconut or organic brown — to soak up the sauce. My only complaint would be the serving size. It's not a dish suitable for sharing between more than two people, and even that could be a stretch if both diners are hungry.
The balado short rib ($22) — prime beef cooked in sambal and served with potato medallions — was buttery and perfectly cooked though the promised pea shoots were nowhere to be found. Sambal is made from chili peppers and other ingredients; the balado sambal adds shallots, tomato, lime, kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass.
The potato medallions were crispy and crunchy, the perfect pairing for a bite of the soft meat.
The bihun goreng ($17), a classic Indonesian noodle dish, was tasty but not out of this world. The wok-fired vermicelli noodles are cooked with crab, vegetables and sambal paste. The lobster pad Thai sounds delectable, but will take a bite out of your wallet at $39.
I washed my grub down with a cilantro-jalapeno margarita, which was a little sweet for my liking but anyone who likes a spicy drink will enjoy the peppery kick. Our very accommodating waitress (and bartender) made my fellow diner happy by satisfying his request for a jalapeno Gibson (the classic gin martini served with pickled onion). It was strong and to our liking.
For non-boozers, the iced vanilla Thai tea is an excellent option.
What we tried of dessert was satisfying. However, what was advertised as coconut crème brulee ($8), tasted just like regular creme brulee. The pisang — banana fritters, a traditional Indonesian snack — got a bit soft while drowning in vanilla ice cream, but who's to complain about anything fried drowning in ice cream? And to my joy, Indo serves ice cream by the scoop from local Tin Pot Creamery (they had ginger and Earl Grey flavors on a recent evening).
Everything was served promptly despite the fact that on a Tuesday evening, the place was extremely well-patronized, with almost all the outside tables filled and many young hopefuls crowded by the bar inside.
Indo's hard-to-find restaurant trifecta — patio, bar and lack of pretension — combined with quality Southeast Asian food makes for a winning combination.
Indo Restaurant & Lounge
3295 El Camino Real, Palo Alto
Hours: Lunch: Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.- 2 p.m.
Dinner: Sunday-Wednesday, 5-9 p.m.; Thursday-Saturday, 5-10 p.m.
Happy Hour: Monday-Thursday, 5-8 p.m.; Friday, 3-8 p.m.; Saturday, 8-10 p.m.
($6 specialty cocktails, $6 appetizers, $6 wine and $6 draft beer)
Credit cards: yes
Parking: street, parking lot
Alcohol: full bar
Private parties: yes
Outdoor dining: yes
Take out: yes
Noise level: average
Bathroom cleanliness: excellent