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Jul 2, 2009 10:26 PM

REVIEW: Priyani, Northridge

First you have to find it. There's a sign on the front, but the entrance is in the back, as is most of the parking. You have to WANT to find it. It's just tucked away, but trust me, you want to find it.

Because I'm willing to bet the VAST majority of people out there haven't had Sri Lankan food before -- and you don't know what you're missing.

Go with a group -- let's say no more than 20, or you won't all fit. They'll bring you menus, and you should ignore them. While you can order off the menu, they have pots of whatever they've cooked today back there and you should ask them what's available. Pretend you're in Russia, where menus have no actual relationship to what food you will get.

Whatever you get, order hoppers. Hoppers are basically curry delivery vehicles, and they come in two varieties: regular hoppers, which are sort of like shallow bowls made out of crêpe, and string hoppers, which are patties of rice noodle stuck together. Of the two, I am WAY more into the string hopper, and not just because they look like heaven's interpretation of banh hoi.

We had a fried platter -- some croquettes of various kinds, and little items that looked like baked empanadas -- but these, while good, are just delivery vehicles for the sauce, a tomato-based sauce with a kick.

Lampreis was available one night -- a brick of rice steamed in banana leaf with various toppings mushed into it. It looks like the craziest thing, like Sri Lankan sushi, with mutton on one side and cooked chilies on another and eggplant on another.

Eggplant... eggplant... God, how do I describe it? It's like eggplant chutney. Little cubes of eggplant in an immensely savoury, dusky, dark seasoning. It's very buttery. Eggplant gets buttery when you treat it right.

Pork curry. Sri Lankans eat pork. They eat meat. Pork curry in a spicy deep dry curry. None of this Punjabi swimming-in-an-ocean-of-sauce business, not here. This one you need the hoppers for to cut through the mountain of spice (not chile heat, but spice).

Biryani -- rice with chicken and cashews cooked in. This was the weakest dish, because it was not as jam-packed with flavour as everything else we had, but you could find a silver lining here and give your mouth a break. (But why do that?)

And. Then. There. Is. The. Coconut. Sambal.

I am DREAMING of the coconut sambal. I am SALIVATING about that coconut sambal! It looks like what it is -- coconut ground with chilies and God knows what all else. It sort of sticks together, the way couscous sort of sticks together when you squeeze it. And it delivers an absolute punch to the head -- why on earth did I never think to put coconut and chile together? I could eat a bowl of it with those rice hoppers and nothing else and be deliriously happy.

I know we had desserts both times, but I only remember one -- the watalappam, which is like this treacly, peanutty, flan made from jaggery (unrefined sugar -- you know, what we call piloncillo). This wasn't any less powerfully flavoured than anything else we'd eaten -- but my GOD was it sweet, so sweet a portion would easily serve two or three.

Service is good. The food may take a little bit of time to come out, but it's because there's exactly one person cooking it and they are making it to order. The owners are very, very friendly, and very happy to answer questions. Eat what they are excited about, talk to them, tell them what you think -- and then go home and dream about it because any food that can marry the coconutty flavours of Indonesian and the curry spice of Indian is a cuisine well worth trying out.

But first you've got to find it.

It's worth the schlep to the Valley. It's worth the menu roulette. It's worth the oh-my-God-I've-parked-in-a-prison feeling. It's worth the dominating TV. The flavours are insane.

Priyani Oriental Cafe
9035 Reseda Blvd, Northridge, CA 91324

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  1. This place is one of the coolest dining experiences in LA right now.The string hoppers are out of this world.The lamb bulyani is a pasta dish with dense texture and flavor.The jackfruit was outstanding. Way too much food for way too cheap.Priyani and family couldn't be any cooler. Go here now.

    1. Of all the new places I've been to in Los Angeles in the last 12 months, I believe this is my very favorite. It's, at least, the one that glows most in my mind with a constant intensity. I think I've been... uh, 11 times now? Not once was I not overjoyed, and not once have I *had the same dish*.

      Heh - I'm glad you made the string hopper - banh hoi connection. The string hoppers can of strike me as condensed banh hoi, which are already a condensed form of noodle.

      1. I'm jealous you got the lampreis. She's described it to me before, but it's never actually been available anytime I've been there. Neither has that eggplant come back into the rotation, despite my yearning for it. The wonder of the ever-changing menu is also the sorrow: everything is new! And also: everything is new! And you're like: awesome, how totally wonderful and exciting. And you're also like: aw, crap, but I want that eggplant chutney again.

        Was the lampreis anything like the Vietnamese banana-leaf/sticky rice/mung bean/spiced pork steamed dealy, whose name I can't remember right now even though my mom has been making it since I'm a kid, because apparently my brain is dying? Banh... chung? Ack, I wish I weren't illiterate in my first language.

        1. And Das Uber: I have an intensity/textural challenge for you. Go to Hunan Seafood. Order the "hot over spicy". Then compare in your heart to the coconut sambal. In the category of "finely textured incredibly intense things"....

          1. I have to part ways with you on their biryani. I *love* their biryani. Their biryani can be completely incredible. Though I can't tell if we're disagreeing about that particular dish, or if I've just had another biryani from them. The various biryanis I've had there are blending together in my mind, and I do remember that they've been very *different* on diferent visits. I do remember, though, a particularly intensely spiced lamb biryani, where the lamb was encrusted in this thick, moist spice paste of intense, roasty-tasting spaces, which was bleeding off into the rice...