LA Pop-Up Chef Cooks the Flavors of Bali Right from Her Home Kitchen – Eater LA

Luh Putu Suarniti wasn’t planning on launching a pop-up. Or at least not this way. It was 2018, and Niti (which Suarniti goes by) was working as a runner at Terroni DTLA when the banana leaf-wrapped shredded chicken with sambal she brought in for her own dinner piqued her coworkers’ interest.

“We’d all get a whiff of this incredible meal that she had prepared for herself,” Hasmik Saakian, Niti’s colleague at Terroni, recalls. “That sort of led to all of us desperately wanting to try it.”

Eager to share her Balinese home cooking, Niti brought in some food for her coworkers. When a manager tried it, he was so taken by the meal that he urged Niti to do a pop-up and even introduced her to the owner of another Downtown restaurant with a space she could use. That September, Niti held her first dinner at sports bar Brack Shop Tavern for 70 people. She cooked tahu cantok (fried tofu in a toasted peanut sauce) and ayam lalapan (marinated dark chicken in a basa rajang sauce), among other dishes. For dessert, she made her mother’s dadar gulung recipe, a Balinese crepe with caramelized coconut.

It has long been Niti’s dream to open a restaurant, but she was sure she would open it in Bali, where she was raised. Cooking the food of her upbringing in a big city like Los Angeles was “a wild dream,” Niti says.

Balinese and Indonesian cuisines are not interchangeable, as Niti will tell you. In fact, Indonesian food is something of a catch-all. The Indonesian archipelago is home to over 267 million people spread over 6,000 inhabited islands that only became independent after World War II. When represented abroad, Indonesian food generally showcases Javanese or Sumatran cuisines (Java and Sumatra are the nation’s two most populated islands), but leaves out scores of other traditions and flavors. For Niti, Balinese food is distinct from other regions in the country in its bold use of flavors. Think lemongrass, Thai chiles, garlic, coconut, turmeric.

Various ingredients for Balinese cooking, such as shallots, garlic, lemongrass, turmeric, and galangal

Niti grew up helping her mother run a small dessert shop in the Balinese town of Ubud, which has a population of 112,000 but sees over 3 million tourists annually. “Bali is not only one of the most popular tourist destinations in Asia, but in the world,” she says. “And when people come to Bali, they want to try our food,” like the nasi jinggo, a common street food of chicken and rice, or babi guling, a suckling roast pig marinated in coconut milk.

Niti’s dream of opening a restaurant and serving her native cuisine to the world led her to pursue a degree in hospitality after high school, then to spending a year working in hotels in the United States — first as front-of-house staff for a kitchen in Michigan, then in housekeeping services in Wyoming — before returning to Bali. But before she could finally open her restaurant, she needed to save some money.

So, in 2014, Niti returned to the U.S., this time to Los Angeles, to work and save up. The exchange rate between the U.S. and Indonesia meant that it was “faster to save money here than back home,” Niti says. She was able to stay with a friend until she got herself set up with a job as a food runner at Terroni; then, she added shifts at Otium. Niti quickly fell in love with the openness of Angelenos and the diversity of life in the city. Yet something surprised her: While LA is home to a large Indonesian community (about 200,0000 people, according to the Indonesian consulate), only a handful of restaurants specialize in Indonesian foods. Moreover, the ones that do serve mostly Javanese or Sumatran cuisine (such as Mr. Sate, Kasih, or Simpang Asia), with no real Balinese options. Niti saw this lack of representation as an opportunity. “When I think of LA, people are welcoming, they are welcoming of every single culture here,” she says. “That’s why I came to LA, and [why I] then had the idea to do the pop-up here and introduce people to Balinese food.”

Yet, after working for four years in LA restaurants and plotting this introduction of Balinese cooking, her original pop-up ran for only one night. Before Niti could arrange for a second event, she was offered promotions to become a server at both Terroni and Otium, and she shifted her focus back to saving money for a permanent restaurant. “It kind of makes me sad,” Niti says. “A lot of people ask me almost every day, every week, ‘Oh, will you have your pop-up again?’ But, unfortunately, I couldn’t do it, because of my day job. It was getting busy too.” The pop-up was not lucrative enough to pull Niti away from her serving positions, and she felt she hadn’t saved enough money yet to dive into a more involved brick-and-mortar concept. “I wanted to do it again, believe me,” Niti says, adding with a laugh, “maybe if someone offered me help, I could do it.”

Ayam bakar with sides and Balinese sambal at Bali Mesari
Barbecue Balinese pork ribs with sambal matah

When the pandemic forced restaurants to close in mid-March, Niti found herself in a new situation. As spring dragged on, Otium had yet to reopen for service, and Terroni DTLA shuttered permanently, giving her time to focus on her own projects. The forced closure of the city’s dine-in restaurant scene also helped level the playing field somewhat by allowing upstart food ventures to operate without a public-facing physical space and sell directly on Instagram. In May, Niti decided to return to her own cooking and restart Bali Mesari (a word meaning something similar to “karma”), this time leveraging the delivery model.

Since relaunching, Niti spends two days a week preparing 50 to 60 meals from her home kitchen in Hollywood. She prepares lunch and dinner orders that go out on Wednesdays and Fridays. Beginning around noon on the day of delivery, Niti’s fiancé drives each order as far as Santa Clarita and Thousand Oaks, where large Indonesian communities live. “During lunchtime, we focus our deliveries there,” Niti says. As for Bali Mesari’s dinner boxes, they started mostly as orders for friends, but now “because my friends have been posting all of my food to social media, there are so many new people ordering food from us.”

“I actually heard about Niti from a friend of mine,” says Jasmine Thombre, who had recently moved to the area and was looking for Indonesian cooking. “I’m from India, [but] a part of India that’s closer to Burma and Indonesia, so I like spicy food. The spicier the better. That’s what gets me about Indo food and Niti’s sambals: Each one has its own levels. I can’t even say which one is my favorite.”

Bali Mesari’s most popular dish is the ayam bakar, chicken made with Niti’s spicy tomato sambal. “I’ll cook it for a couple hours, grill it [in a sweet soy sauce], and then I’ll serve it with sayur plecing, which is steamed bean sprouts and Chinese long beans.” Ayam bakar is a bold, fragrant dish indicative of Balinese cuisine’s colorful palate. As Niti explains, “Because of the spices, Balinese food is stronger, more full of taste, wilder” than other regional Indonesian cuisines.

Luh Putu “Niti” Suarniti holding a tray of Balinese specialties that she cooked in her home kitchen in LA

Bali Mesari’s menu also includes barbecued pork ribs (while most of Indonesia is Muslim, thus forbiding pork, Balinese Hinduism allows for its consumption) served with a side of Niti’s sambal matah (a raw sambal made bright with lemongrass and Thai chile). Niti’s version of nasi jinggo presents the chicken in her spicy tomato sambal, along with sweet soy tempeh, fried noodles, potato fritters, and yellow rice cooked in turmeric and coconut milk. For Hasmik Saakian, Niti’s former coworker, who tries to order Bali Mesari every week, this rice is a delicacy unto itself. “It takes about a minute for me to scarf down a massive two-portion size of that rice,” Saakian says. “It’s just incredible. It doesn’t make any sense. You should just call it Magic Rice.”

As for the dadar gulung and other desserts Niti used to sell from her mother’s shop in Ubud, they’re not on the menu yet. “But I’ve been working so much on desserts during quarantine that maybe, slowly, I’ll put some out,” she says, adding that if she does make any, “I’m just gonna give [customers] free desserts.”

With or without her mother’s coveted dadar gulung on the current menu, the food Niti cooks is as much a reflection of where she’s from as it is of who she is. Each plate is packed full of flavor, beautifully presented with meats and fluffy rice resting on banana leaves. Bali Mesari is more than personal; it’s downright intimate. “We talk about Bali and the food, and it’s really exciting,” Niti says. “I’m just in love with my culture.”

Order Bali Mesari by sending a direct message on Instagram.