Tan’s is the kind of place that makes me very happy. For one thing, I occasionally enjoy going completely crazy on spicy food, and Tan’s is just the place for that sort of behavior. This started out as a matter of family pride for me; my dad, after all, used to claim that our family motto was, “If you didn’t sweat, you didn’t eat!” (I’m pretty sure that was just something he made up in order to justify his large collection of absurdly hot Indian pickles, but you could do far worse in the family slogan department, all things considered.)
More recently, a friend of mine in Chicago once ate a plate of food so spicy that his picture is now on the wall of a Thai restaurant, purely out of respect. So with these sort of role models, it probably isn’t surprising that I often find myself entreating servers at restaurants to make it a bit hotter than you think a customer would want. Well, to a level that is unique around town, Tan’s delivers on this front. But it isn’t just a question of heat alone (which would be impressive but pedestrian); if you order from the right parts of their menu, Tan’s delivers food that is both fiery and delicious.
So what part of the menu should you order from? Well, I’m glad that I pretended that you asked. Tan’s advertises themselves as an “Asian Cafe,” which is normally a bad sign. I’ve heard it said that any restaurant that makes both Thai and Sushi will do neither very well (cough), and like my father’s motto, that is a good rule to live by, even if there are occasional exceptions. So when I first heard about Tan’s, and saw that they offer some American-style Chinese food, and also a bunch of sushi, all signs pointed to miserable food. But then I learned that they also serve a large menu of authentic Indonesian food, which is a truly rare find anywhere in this country, and doubly so in the deep South. With this new info in hand, I started to see Tan’s in a different light. Now they weren’t just another crappy pan-Asian place; they were both brave enough to serve a cuisine that Americans aren’t really accustomed to yet, and smart enough to cross-subsidize it with some familiar fare for the less adventurous.
So the short answer is that, if you want an interesting, authentic dining experience, you should stick exclusively to the Indonesian portion of the menu. We’ve tried some of the Chinese dishes, and can report that they were acceptable versions of Americanized Chinese classics, but not quite as good as what you could get at Bamboo Wok. Reserve these for your less culinarily adventurous dining companions, and stick to what Tan’s does best, which is dishes like this:
This is Tofu Bumbu Bali, and it is awesome. Delicately fried pieces of soft tofu, bite-sized potato chunks and a boiled egg arrived coated in a thick, scorchingly hot sauce, with rice and cucumber slices on the side to help cool down your palate between bites. The flavors melded perfectly, with savory and citrusy notes filling in where the heat left off. This was a big plate of very spicy food, but Sarah and I polished it off enthusiastically, leaving nothing but a clean white plate. (Pro-tip: For food this hot, I recommend bringing a tube of chap-stick with you. Lips are more sensitive to capsaicin than the rest of your mouth, in my experience, and can ruin an otherwise pleasant dining experience if not coated beforehand.)
We’ve also been big fans of the Soto Ayam Lamongan (pictured at the top of the post), a mild chicken stew with all kinds of good stuff mixed in, with potato chips on the side for dipping. The Daging Rendang, a wonderful spicy-sweet curry of beef tendon with lemongrass, lime leaves, coconut milk and spices, is also delicious. (As a brief aside, Americans seem to fear tendon dishes, but they shouldn’t. Beef tendons are basically the Asian answer to barbecued pork shoulders. If cooked slowly in a moist, low-heat environment, all the tough connective tissue melts away, thickening the sauce, while the meat caramelizes into something heavenly.) The Babi Rica-Rica, a spicy pork dish, was pleasantly hot and tangy, but not as interesting as the other things I’ve mentioned.
Finally, a quick comment on the service. I had heard some bad stories about Tan’s customer service, especially involving their take-out business. Although I think that sort of thing is really crappy, our own experience has (so far) been much better. On the one hand, I’m not surprised that problems sometimes occur, because Tan’s is basically run like on ongoing natural disaster relief effort; they are very kind and well-meaning, but things can seem chaotic even on a slow night. But on the other hand, Tan’s servers are all very knowledgable about their Indonesian menu, and I’ve learned a great deal about the cuisine from talking with them. They also bend over backwards to help you find something that will suit your palate, and they obviously take great pride when one of their recommendations works out well. In short, Tan’s Indonesian dishes are obviously labors of love, and if you show some interest in them, the staff will generally do everything they can to help you enjoy your experience.