Gaining Flavor

TOKA Asian Kitchen’s menu overwhelmed me at first glance. There were 22 starters alone, and none in particular stood out. The State Street restaurant offered many familiar-sounding dishes: satay, spring rolls, teriyaki, fried rice, beef and broccoli. But make no mistake: TOKA’s broad menu and generalized “Asian Kitchen” descriptor belie a delectable complexity of Indonesian flavors that electrify even the simplest dishes with a mouth-watering, sweet-spicy twist.

When TOKA opened its doors in June 2021, as the initial wave of vaccination started to open up the city, it introduced Indonesian dining to the New Haven restaurant scene. Its owners, Rohana Sari and Alaiza Imran, opted for the name “Asian Kitchen” because they “wanted people to be open to it,” Sari says. But the food’s Indonesian influence—or at least the fact that something unique is afoot here—won’t stay a secret to anyone who tastes the piquant meld of flavors infused in TOKA’s specialties.

I started with the Scallion Pancakes, which arrived with just the right amount of char and a parsley garnish. While satisfyingly crispy on their own, they shined in the buttery, spicy sauce that came with them—not, as I expected, a soy-style sauce, but something more akin to a light curry, with a complex kick lingering between bites.

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I next got a taste of several other appetizers, each of which had a standard name and an unexpected burst of Indonesian flavor. The Vegetable Spring Rolls tasted notably fresh and came with a perfectly balanced dipping sauce. The Fried Tofu was perhaps both the crispiest and juiciest tofu I’ve ever eaten, and its accompanying sauce rounded out a perfect bite of multiple textures and flavors. The TOKA Wings are one of the restaurant’s most popular starters, and for good reason. I started to salivate as soon as I smelled the sauce emanating from the fried chicken wings, which were topped with caramelized shallots and offered numerous crispy crannies where the sauce pooled.

Sari says TOKA serves recipes from the “old days,” offering traditional Indonesian dishes served generation after generation, with additional influences from Malaysian, Japanese, Chinese and Singaporean cuisines. When I wavered on my decision for a main course—and once I assured her I like spicy food—she brought me the Laksa Curry. I was prepared for the spice, but not the taste bud-tickling variety of textures and flavors. Chewy egg noodles, chicken, tofu and eggplant melded together in a coconut milk-based sauce that was satisfyingly light, thinner than an Indian-style curry. For those seeking a milder base, the mellow, yellow TOKA Curry is a customer favorite, Imran says.

I sat outside at one of two curbside tables, accompanied by a faux orchid and the hum of Upper State Street. Inside, the vibe is halfway between trendy and cozy, with dim lighting and a wall of inset shadow boxes featuring traditional Asian art. Imran is currently finalizing plans for a renovation that would introduce a wall and ceiling of artificial plants and low, warm-tone lighting. “We wanted it to be a bit of a classy restaurant, but at the same time it’s a kitchen and anyone is welcome to come,” Imran says. “You don’t have to be dressed up, you can come just to chill out.”

I wasn’t surprised when Sari and Imran said they have a large base of repeat customers. Now they can count me among them. Next time, I want to try another Indonesian specialty, the Beef Rendang, as well as the Eggplant & Tofu stir fry and Pisang Goreng, a fried banana dessert, which I ruled out on my first visit due to lack of stomach capacity.

Showing surpluses of fresh, flavorful, deftly spiced dishes, TOKA has a broad menu, it turns out, for good reason.

TOKA Asian Kitchen
996 State St, New Haven (map)
Sun-Thurs 11:30am-9:30pm, Fri-Sat noon-10pm
(203) 821-7217
Website | Instagram

Written by Steven Rome.

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