Walk the streets of Jakarta or Surabaya in Indonesia and chances are there’s a vendor cooking up martabak. The ubiquitous sweet treat features two thick slabs of spongy, buttery, honeycomb-creviced cake. It’s most commonly stuffed with layers of chocolate, melted cheese, crunchy roasted peanuts, and a drizzle of condensed milk. Until recently, it’s been an exceedingly rare dessert to find in New York.
Martabak manis, a sweet Indonesian pancake, are now fired up on the regular in Astoria. Papa Don NYC is likely the first martabak-centric brick-and-mortar in NYC to serve the beloved Indonesian street food since it swung its doors open this past summer at 27-10 23rd Avenue, between 27th and 28th streets.
New York diners have caught glimpses of martabak on other restaurant menus but those renditions have mostly leaned savory — think crispy, thin-crust, meat-filled turnovers. Wayan, a Lower East Side Indonesian spot, serves its martabak telor with ground beef and egg while Malaysian and Singaporean restaurants like Wok Wok Southeast Asian Kitchen, Rasa, and Laut Singapura have offered a martabak roti with a curry sauce for dipping.
At Papa Don NYC, co-founder Donny Kairupan focuses on the sweet version that the Warung Jancook stand sells every so often at the Queens Night Market. Local home chefs have also been known to supply pre-packaged versions to Indonesian grocery stores like Indo Java and Ok Indofood Store in Elmhurst. Since 2015, Elmhurst-based Martabak Queens 69 has been taking pre-orders for pick-up from those who call the number listed on his Facebook page.
“Nobody else has a martabak manis store in New York,” says Fefe Anggono, founder of Elmhurst’s monthly Indonesian Food Bazaar, where Papa Don NYC also sells its pancakes. “Now I can get my martabak manis every month right here at my bazaar.”
Papa Don NYC’s martabak manis are made fresh to order, staying true to the pastry’s street food roots. Cooked on a cast iron martabak griddle that the husband-and-wife-team of Kairupan and Patty Liu lugged over from Indonesia, the traditional semi-circular, family-style martabak manis ($18) is sliced into 14 pieces, each one offering different layers of texture and a sweetness tinged with saltiness from the mild cheddar cheese.
They also come in four other flavors ($15 to $20) like coffee and ube. Customers can also build their own pancake from a dozen toppings that include Nutella, coconut flakes, and Oreos. The family-portion martabak is cooked to order, so Kairupan recommends that customers call ahead and avoid the 20 to 30-minute wait. Papa Don also offers individual portions — two pieces of any flavor for $7. The traditional and coffee pancakes are pre-made and available for walk-ins; the other flavors require a 10 to 15-minute wait time.
Martabak is Kairupan’s favorite childhood snack that traces back to his summer vacations in Indonesia. “He’s always been talking about martabak, like ‘Oh, it’s so good; it’s my favorite,’” recalls wife and co-owner Liu, who grew up with him in Elmhurst. He wanted to expand its availability to NYC partly for his own consumption, but a big catalyst for the business was a life-threatening illness.
In January 2017, Kairupan says he survived a high-risk surgery to remove an internal tumor “the size of a baseball” growing in his neck, which also impinged on a crucial artery. “That’s when everything changed for me,” he says, still sustaining nerve damage to the right side of his face.
The duo split from their corporate finance jobs, bolted for Manado, Indonesia, where Kairupan, reunited with family — and ample martabak. While living there for one year, he learned to make the treat from four street vendors, and after returning in 2018, he later launched Papa Don NYC around those recipes back in Queens.
The limited availability of martabak manis made them a hot ticket at the monthly Indonesian Food Bazaar, where the couple kicked off their sweet concept as a pop-up in January 2020. “We had five pans going at the same time and there was still a three-hour wait,” recounts Kairupan.
Still, more challenges awaited them. Since signing the lease, the partners waited for six months for construction permits from the Department of Buildings while still paying rent on the Astoria storefront. Earlier this fall, they dealt with the fallout of Hurricane Ida, which brought in a foot-high flood that topped over inventory that they’d preemptively elevated on stacked pallets.
“Things were floating down there,” says Kairupan. “We found things that were supposed to be in the front of the basement, now in the back of the basement.”
He estimates “a few thousand dollars” in losses: three broken refrigerators, boxes of ingredients, and custom packaging that they had to recoup.
“But I like to stay positive. If there’s one thing this pandemic taught us, it’s that we literally could do anything we want to do if we put our hearts into it, and it’s been working,” says Donny Kairupan. “We’re thankful.”
Donny Kairupan and Patty Liu plan to participate in the Indonesian food bazaars in the coming months as they work toward expanding their current martabak manis and boba menu with their rendition of another cherished snack in Indonesia: the Rotiboy, a sweet bun with a butter filling and a crusty coffee topping.
Papa Don NYC is open daily from noon to 8 p.m.