“Selamat Makan,” says Dave Sims after presenting a plate of Perkedel Jagung, Indonesian corn fritters and placing it on the table in front of us. “It’s the Indonesian phrase meaning bon appetit,” our server explains. We’ve found ourselves nestled in a residential backyard in Serra Mesa at Warung RieRie, an intimate Indonesian fine dining experience owned and curated by chef Rie Sims and her husband Dave. Here, guests can enjoy a six-course tasting menu featuring dishes that span the Indonesian archipelago inside an antique Rumah Lumbung or rice house.
This once-in-a-lifetime dining experience was once only accessible via an expensive trip to Southeast Asia but now San Diegans have a unique opportunity to experience this cuisine thanks to microenterprise home kitchen operations (MEHKOs). This past January, County supervisors unanimously adopted California Assembly Bill 626 legalizing MEHKOs in San Diego County and making it possible to enjoy homemade food served directly from permitted home kitchens.
As of May, about 25 MEHKOs have passed the county health department home kitchen inspections in San Diego, joining a total of 225 permitted MEHKOs in operation in California. The new concepts are serving dishes steeped in cultural and ancestral tradition. “Estimates and preliminary explorations show that the majority of MEHKO operators in the state are women and over 75% are people of color,” says COOK Alliance executive director and San Diego MEHKO Coalition member, Roya Bagheri, esq. The wave of homebased chefs is expected to usher in hundreds of new food concepts to San Diego within the next few years.
The adoption of the bill was the result of a concerted effort by the San Diego MEHKO Coalition, a team of three passionate San Diegan women: Karen Melvin, Roya Bagheri, and Katia Calahan. “We ended up with this three-person leadership that was multigenerational, multiethnic, each bringing their own skill set to the table. It turned out to be a very necessary and good team,” says Melvin. Over the course of a year, the trio worked behind the scenes to research, advocate, and bolster support for the bill. They gathered data from neighboring Riverside County, which pioneered the bill’s adoption when it became the first county in California to adopt the bill in January 2019. Riverside County offered statistics from two years of MEHKO operation that was instrumental in passing the bill in San Diego County. On January 12, San Diego became the most populous county in California to pass MEHKOs joining eight other counties and the city of Berkeley to adopt the bill. Utah followed suit in 2021 by enacting a law to allow MEHKOS statewide.
The passing of MEHKOs in San Diego County has allowed chefs like Rie Sims to open their home and hearts to backyard guests eager to experience one-of-a-kind dining. At Warung RieRie, an Indonesian home restaurant, diners enjoy their meal in an antique Rumah Lumbung, or rice house, built in central Sumatra in 1935. Outside the staggering lumbung Dave Sims has curated a blossoming organic garden full of banana trees, passionfruit, mangos, hot peppers, berries, galangal, various fruit trees, lemongrass, and other tropical produce. This bounty sourced from their backyard is harvested and brought into their home kitchen where Rie Sims seamlessly converts the fruits and vegetables into regional dishes native to her home of Indonesia.
My fiancée and I had the pleasure of dining at Warung RieRie, entering their backyard from a sidewalk gate into a residential restaurant was nothing short of magical. Dave, guided us through an Eden of edible vegetation, identifying each plant along the way, and noting that 60 to 80% of the produce served in our meal would be sourced from their abundant garden. Once escorted past the towering rice house and seated in its shadow on a tropical-print sofa in this picturesque space surrounded by passionfruit vines and sundry banana trees, he informs us of how Warung RieRie came to be.
Dave, a graphic designer and creative director by trade, visited Bali, Indonesia in 2004 for a three-week surf trip. During his stay at a local lodge, he became friends with the owner who was originally from Big Sur. The two connected and the owner offered Dave a supervisor position to run the lodge while the owner took a trip back to California. Dave returned home to San Diego, packed his belongings, and within a few months, boarded a plane back to Bali to start a new chapter in his life. He oversaw operations at the lodge for two years before starting his own business in which he offered a kids adventure day camp for families visiting the islands.
Rie Sims was born in Papua, the largest and easternmost province in Indonesia, and moved to Jakarta with her family when she was four years old. In Jakarta, the nation’s capital, she attended art school, and following her graduation she became one of Indonesia's few female film directors and producers. When her father passed she moved to Bali to heal as the island is believed to possess divine healing energy. Her father inspired her passion to cook. “My dad, the one who taught me how to cook, always told me ‘if you are feeding other people your rice will always be full and you’ll continue to be blessed,’” she remembers.
In Bali, she became a manager for a large surf school affiliated with Billabong. Shortly after, she and Dave were introduced by a mutual friend. They eventually moved to San Diego to begin a family where she tapped into her roots by starting a small Indonesian catering company. Her dishes gained international attention when she was called on to cook for visiting dignitaries at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Palm Springs. There she cooked for the current Indonesian president, Joko Widodo, popularly known as “Jokowi”.
Rie and Dave returned to Indonesia often on family vacations with their children. On a trip in 2019, Dave spotted a rice house for sale in Bali. He learned that it was originally built in 1935 of solid teak and ironwood in central Sumatra. The couple decided to purchase it with the intention of using it as a creative office or man cave back home in San Diego.
They spent the last two weeks of their trip overseeing the dismantling and packing of the various pieces of the rice house into a shipping container. They also packed a collection of dishware crafted by Bali-based ceramic producer, Jenggala, and a 120-year-old teak wood bench. “On the flight home, you have 23 hours to think about your life, so I had this aha moment. I asked my wife Rie, what do you think about instead of doing our catering fine dining Indonesian food business, let’s bring it in-house and make a warung?” recalls Dave Sims.
A warung is a traditional Indonesian restaurant, typically run by a woman, out of the house. Warungs sell quick grab-and-go food items like fish and rice dishes or dry goods. Therefore, while the husband is at work, the wife could care for the kids and make extra money to supplement their income.
The rice house traveled from Bali to Long Beach on the Ever Given container ship, the same ship that infamously disrupted the global supply chaing when it became wedged in the Suez Canal for six days in March of 2021. The family’s shipping container arrived in Long Beach approximately a month after their return to San Diego. A parade of trucks and volunteers helped bring the rice house to their home in Serra Mesa.
“For Indonesian people, a rice house or lumbung is always a blessing for the person who owns it or for all the people around it. We both decided that we could not just keep it to ourselves. We have to pay it forward and give back to the community. In the middle of the pandemic when [Dave] was building [the rice house] we did to-go boxes of food. So if you bought a meal for a family of four we gave away a meal for a family of four in need,” Rie Sims shares.
The 24 foot tall rice house structure was safely erected in six hours and the bamboo-thatched roof built on over the course of the following month. Once fully constructed, the couple was ready to introduce their food to San Diego. The first guests to dine at Warung RieRie were foodies that recently moved from San Francisco to San Diego. They posted their entire experience on Instagram live which immediately brought attention to Warung RieRie. Two months later, they had guests celebrating their 10-year wedding anniversary and the wife created a TikTok video that went viral overnight.
“Within a week we were booked out as far as our calendar goes. We started a standby list that grew to well over one hundred guests,” Dave says. Today, Warung RieRie is fully booked with occasional last-minute openings that become available. Over 400 people remain on a standby list to enjoy a meal in the Sims’ backyard.
My fiancée and I were fortunate to see a last-minute opening and jumped at the opportunity. The experience is extremely limited as guests are accepted in groups of two to six people and only one party is allotted per seating with two seatings available on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings. After enjoying a tropical beverage in the garden, we were welcomed into the antique rice house for the start of dinner service. The meal unfolded over six courses and provides a glimpse into Rie Sims’ upbringing. “The menu I create travels throughout the Indonesian archipelago. On this menu, I have a soup from Sumatra and then the main course [is] all the way from Papua. So it’s like you travel throughout Indonesia,” she explains. Each month the menu changes to reflect new dishes made from seasonal produce.
The first course is a delicately fried Perkedel Jagung, Indonesian corn fritters, served with a tangy sweet chili sauce. Then, a silky coconut noodle soup, Laksa Tangerang, followed by succulent shredded chicken, bean sprouts, and cabbage. Pandan leaf, kaffir lime, calamansi, and Thai chiles were perfectly married in variations throughout the meal as Dave acted as an expert tour guide on the various dishes, preparation techniques, and the traditions of the islands. Each course is elegantly displayed on the ornate Jenggala flatware that traveled in the shipping container from Bali. A mixed green salad with house-pickled vegetables came next followed by citrus-marinated ahi tuna on wonton crisps. The show-stopping main course is a slow-roasted chicken elevated above the plate on a bed of jasmine rice accompanied by three sambal hot sauces. Made from peppers grown in the garden, each sauce is spicier than the next. The most blistering of the three is Sambal Pedas, made from ghost, Carolina reaper, scorpion, and Thai chili peppers.
Rie Sims hangs up her apron and leaves the kitchen to present the dessert course, a decadent coconut and mango sorbet with passion fruit syrup.
The next batch of passion fruit for syrup can be seen ripening on the vine in the garden while sitting at the table inside the lumbung, an embodiment of true seasonality and the endless possibilities of residential restaurants. Rie and Dave Sims reminisce on their journey thus far as we savor each bite of sorbet. “Our next goal is to become the first Michelin-starred backyard restaurant,” Dave manifests at the conclusion of an incredible meal.
This is just a taste of what is next for microenterprise home kitchen operations in San Diego. “There is such a broad spectrum of what you can do with a MEHKO. It will just be limited to people’s imagination”, Karen Melvin explains. New MEHKO concepts are being permitted on a rolling basis, some of the inaugural concepts include Chicano fried chicken newcomer, Barrio Bird, innovative Italian fare by ItalMeal21, and birria hotspot, Tres Fuegos Cocina.
“What has amazed me in the two inspections that I’ve watched is the tears that come from the cooks themselves. In both cases that I’ve seen it’s very emotional because it’s not only something that they wanted to do but also their father or their mother wanted. It was a generational dream that was coming true,” Melvin says.
Generational dreams and ancestral flavors can now be enjoyed from the comfort of our neighbor’s homes. At the end of our meal at Warung RieRie, Rie Sims looks around at the rice house, the garden, and her husband and business partner, and recites a phrase that her father used to say: “When someone gives you their food it means they give you their heart.”
Selamat Makan, San Diego.
Join the San Diego MEHKO Coalition on Facebook for updates on newly permitted MEHKOs and support for starting one of your own. More information on the progress of MEHKOs in California and a complete map of permitted MEHKOs can be found on the COOK Alliance website. COOK Alliance is a nonprofit that is working to legalize home cooking businesses and empower culinary entrepreneurs to be fully informed, define their own success, and enrich their communities.