As one of Jakarta’s leading culinary districts, the northern end of Jalan Haji Agus Salim, better known as Jalan Sabang, has long been a haunt of foodies on the lookout for reasonably priced cuisine from Indonesia and around the globe.
But this Menteng, Central Jakarta, strip is more than just the place to tuck in to some chicken, beef or mutton sate or nasi goreng.
It offers glimpses of life in Jakarta — like processions of larger-than-life traditional Betawi ondel-ondel puppets — and radiates a quaint, old fashioned feel that is increasingly hard to find in the rapidly developing capital.
Aside from dining at one of the innumerable restaurants and food stalls, one of the best things to do in this unique part of the city is to visit one of the traditional coffee houses that line the street.
One such place is Sabang 16, which upon entering feels like a small-scale bistro, as its red velvet wall is replete with the reproductions of old paintings and black and white photos.
Founded by three friends, Timothy Marbun, Kennedy Muslim and Dicky Luwigi, Sabang 16 was designed to bring the old fashioned ambience of traditional coffee shops and their brews.
“I first had the idea to open [Sabang 16] in 2010 during a road trip to North Sumatra. During the trip we stopped by traditional coffee shops which served fresh coffee with sweet milk and srikaya [coconut jam flavored with pandan leaves] toast,” Timothy said.
“I noticed that there are no coffee shops like that in Jakarta. Kennedy had the same idea after he saw similar coffee shops during a trip to Vietnam.”
“As for Dicky, his family used to run a traditional coffee shop and he was also receptive to the idea,” he added. “So that was how we got started.”
Timothy added that Jalan Sabang’s retro, sentimental feel made it the right place to open the coffeehouse. But while Sabang 16’s look and feel evokes the past, the place is very much a product of Jakarta’s present.
“Sabang 16 practically has no marketing strategy aside from a hot beverage and srikaya toast, so we relied on word of mouth and social media from our customers,” Timothy explained.
“We see tweets and Instagram pictures [of Sabang 16] every now and then, and fortunately they helped spread the word about us.”
Sabang 16 draws a predominantly young, technologically savvy and hip clientele because of the reasonable prices on its menu. With food and drinks ranging from Rp 5,000 (50 cents) to Rp 25,000, it is no wonder it has proven a magnet for the young.
“I have been coming to Sabang 16 regularly since my family and I found the place by chance in 2011,” said Dian, a student from Belitung Island currently majoring in dentistry at Jakarta’s Prof. Dr. Moestopo University.
“I often go for the grilled srikaya toast and hot or iced coffees. Nowadays, if my friends and I want to go some place to eat, we usually go [to Sabang 16].”
It did not take long to see that the srikaya toast (Rp 16,000) lived up to its billing. Served between two large slabs of crispy grilled bread, the freshly made srikaya combines the sweet flavor of coconut with the subtle fragrance of pandan leaves.
The two elements combine in a spread that is exotic yet buttery, and melts in one’s mouth.
The Vietnamese coffee (Rp 20,000) was a good match for the srikaya toast. The drink was a study in contrasts, as the full bodied Robusta coffee from North Sumatra’s Sidikalang district was the perfect foil for the thick, sweet condensed milk.
Timothy said Sabang 16 is set to expand to accommodate increasing demand.
“We are currently building our second outlet in Tebet, South Jakarta. Hopefully it will open its doors by the end of May,” he explained.
“The branch will be much bigger than our current outlet in Jalan Sabang, so we will expand the menu to include items like fried rice and chicken curry. But while the outlet might be bigger, it will be no less homely than our first branch.”
Whether Sabang 16 will retain its quaint feel in a more contemporary district like Tebet remains to be seen. But what is certain is that the place will be worth checking out.
Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on May 6, 2013