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Spicy Lanka: Sri Lankan Cuisine Returns To Queens

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I used to hit up a little joint near the Ganesh Temple Canteen in Flushing, called Bownie.

It was a tiny, dark storefront that you could have passed a million times without noticing it. Chances are if you did notice it, you'd likely have mistaken it for one of those makeshift car service joints. What it was, for many years, was Queens' only Sri Lankan eatery.

Bownie was the first place I tried a dish called Kothu Roti, which consists of chopped up roti mixed up and fried with the meat of your choice, assorted vegetables and a dynamic array of herbs and spices. I understand that in Sri Lanka, it's a street classic. In these parts, it was, and still is, hard to find, and I fell in love with it at Bownie. I returned periodically to Bownie over the years and tried other dishes, such as Iddiapam and Fish Curry. Liked them all. On top of that, I liked the people who worked there. Good, friendly folks.

Then, a few years back, something terrible happened.

Bownie burned down. On top of the fact that some good people were out of work, Queens had lost its' only Sri Lankan restaurant. That is, until about a year or two ago, when I heard about a new place that had opened up on Hillside Avenue. I'm sure someone here will remember the name - started with 'A' as I recall - and perhaps a few of you ate there. I never got a chance. On my two lone attempts to eat there, the joint was shuttered, and there was no answer on the phone. Eventually, it was a given that the place was a goner, down before its' prime.

I'd all but given up on Sri Lankan in Queens until this afternoon, when, en route to dropping my car off for servicing, I saw the bright green sign for Spicy Lanka, with the proprietor/server, a very gracious and friendly hostess, standing outside. To my delight, the place wasn't shuttered. It was open.

First, a few facts. Spicy Lanka has been open for about two months. They took over the medium-sized storefront previously occupied by the other Sri Lankan place around 9 months ago, and spent all that time renovating before opening. The chef is, indeed, from Sri Lanka. Sounds like they flew him in just to open the place. I'd give anything to know his impressions of Hillside Avenue.

The menu is a work in progress. Like Bownie's, Spicy Lanka has a small, modest selection of curries - I'm going for the Kingfish next time - appetizers and Devil dishes, which are something of a Sri Lankan stir fry. They don't have Hoppers yet, but will as soon as they have the proper kitchen equipment. The decor is nice, simple, clean. Nice bathroom. There's a funky little bar in the back right, but I'm guessing these guys don't have a liquor license yet; I didn't ask.

Pictured below is my lunch today - String Hopper Kothu with beef. String Hoppers are a kind of noodle, aka Idiyappam. The portion was enough for a meal and then some, and could easily be shared by two people along with another dish or two. What to say, I'm in love all over again. For those who've tried this at the celebrated Sigiri, Spicy Lanka's version is just as good, with potent heat, great texture and a wonderful array of flavors. It's also, at 10 bucks, about five dollars cheaper. This dish has a claim on my soul - I consider it a dark master. I know it's not good for me, but I can't stop eating it. With each heaping spoonful, I say I'm going to stop but know that I don't stand a chance. I'm caught in the crosshairs and resigned to my fate.

In all, I've been worse.

I'm excited to try more dishes here, and am really glad we have some Sri Lankan in Queens again. If the kothu is the only good dish here, I'd return again and again just for that.

Hope others come, enjoy and report back.

P.

Spicy Lanka
159-23 Hillside Avenue
(about a block or so away from the Parsons Blvd F stop)
Jamaica, NY 11432
718-487-4499

 
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  1. Araliya was the former restaurant. It disappeared far too quickly, but it just never seemed to have any customers. I sure hope Spicy Lanka, now that they've opened at long last, can make a go of it. Thanks for the word, Polecat!

    Dave Cook
    www.EatingInTranslation.com

    1. +2 Many thanks for the inspiring report. I too miss dear old Bownie. Relieved to learn of such a promising option outside Staten Island. Look forward to hitting it up soon.

      1. Are most dishes about $10?

        1 Reply
        1. re: AubWah

          Yes, give or take.

        2. Just went to Spicy Lanka. We had the fish and veggie croquettes, the vegetarian thali (with beets, string beans, eggplant, okra, and dahl), the kotthu hoppers with beef, the mutton red curry and the fish (they said tuna, I thought kingfish) with pepper and tamarind. Everything was delicious, fresh, interesting, vivid, and to the limit of my experience authentic, full of leaves and spices, tasting nothing like anything but quintessential Sri Lankan cuisine. The red rice is also delicious. Lovely people, pretty space, impeccable bathroom, easy to get to (50 meters from the Parsons Blvd. stop on the F train), BYOB. Quite spicy--I ordered medium to accommodate my wife, and it was still somewhat too hot for her. I could have taken hotter, and would have gotten a devil dish in different company. But I didn't miss the hotness per se, as I would have done in a Thai meal. The mutton red curry was the hottest thing we had.
          One word to Hounders: GO!!!

          1. PS The bill came to $62 including a generous tip, for 4 people who were stuffed. We also got dessert, a coconut, jaggery, cashew custard, not sweet and very refreshing.

            1 Reply
            1. re: swannee

              Sounds delicious

            2. Went yesterday evening on the basis of seeing this post. Thanks for writing this up.

              I found a lot of promise in the food. I had a vegetarian thali with four curries and thought it was quite tasty. I especially liked the dried salted chili they used for garnish.

              No liquor license, but they have a bar+restaurant format so they'll probably be getting one.

              1. I've been to Spicy Lanka twice now, the second time last night with a group of 4. It's a very limited menu and I've now tried one variety of almost every dish they offer except the biryani and fried rice.

                Rolls and Patties -- all are freshly fried and are much lighter than they appear. Not greasy at all.

                Vegetarian Thali -- it comes with 4 vegetable curries and there are only 4 listed on the menu but since they cook something different every day, there's some variety. Yesterday's selection was:
                -- a chunky Dhal and Potato mash. I don't know if this was the dhal curry, the potato curry, or something entirely different.
                -- Beet curry
                -- "Banana Curry" which turned out to be a banana blossom curry. I've had this as a salad in many SE Asian countries but never before as a curry.
                -- "Drumsticks", a very fibrous bamboo curry.
                All were spicy and very good. The bamboo was the least favorite of our group but that was probably because of the texture and the need to spit out the tough outer shell.

                Fish curry -- big chunks of kingfish in a delicious bowl of sauce. Probably the biggest hit of the night.

                Ambul Thiyal (sour fish curry) -- this is a dry curry, made with tamarind. Most of us liked it but it is an unusual taste.

                Kotthu Roti -- we had it with lamb. It comes as a well-plated huge mound. It looks dry. It's not. It was one of the moistest and most flavorful versions I've had. And big enough that we took half of it home.

                Devil dishes -- I tried the chicken the first time I was there. I asked for it spicy. The hostess explained that they've had customers order it "spicy" and then send it back because it was too spicy. I explained that I've been to Sri Lanka and know how spicy the food can be. It came out perfectly spiced. Unfortunately, the chicken was overcooked and dry. The heat level of the sauce was great but I found it too sweet for my liking.

                I loved Bownie but I think the food at Spicy Lanka is a little better. And there's no comparing the atmosphere. Hopefully Spicy Lanka is doing a good catering business because based on the number of customers I've seen, they won't be able to survive. It would be a shame if Queens lost its only Sri Lankan restaurant again.

                3 Replies
                1. re: el jefe

                  >Drumsticks, a very fibrous bamboo curry ...

                  Not bamboo but a different plant ... http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drumstic...

                  1. re: squid kun

                    Thanks. We asked the waitress and that was her answer. We just assumed it was an unfamiliar variety of bamboo. And, of course, now that you've supplied the link, it's common in many sambars.

                    1. re: el jefe

                      drumstick is delicious. you can sort of scrape the flesh off the fiber with your teeth, rather like artichoke leaves. Its great to find new vegetables that I actually like.

                2. I have to say that I don't understand the good reviews from you folks. I went last Wednesday with several fellow food writers and chowhounds and I was unimpressed to the point of being bored with the food. We tried a lot of dishes and the item I liked best was a coconut and chili pepper based paste for one of the dishes, and that was only ok. But in general I was bored. If I hadn't gone there very hungry I probably wouldn't have done more than just taste the dishes.

                  7 Replies
                  1. re: JMF

                    Were you the only one who was unimpressed, or was that the general consensus of your group?

                    1. re: foodiemom10583

                      I won't speak for two of the group. But myself and one other had a talk about it. As for the other two, it was pretty obvious that they were unimpressed as well.

                      Oh, and while I haven't been to Sri Lanka, I have been to India, and spent quite a bit of time studying with some chefs from different regions, including Sri Lanka.

                      1. re: JMF

                        A third member of our group saw this and said they felt the same way.

                    2. re: JMF

                      chacun a son gout.....

                      1. re: JMF

                        >I don't understand the good reviews from you folks.

                        As a reader of your post and theirs, I understand them simply as this: different people holding different opinions.

                        How would you rank this place against other Sri Lankan restaurants around town—Sigiri in Manhattan, the ones on Staten Island, the late lamented Bownie? The OP offers one such comparison, which is helpful context.

                        1. re: squid kun

                          Another food writer, evidently not bored, weighs in ... http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/04/din...

                        2. re: JMF

                          what did you have on your visit?

                        3. Thanks for the reports! We featured this discussion on the CHOW blog here: http://www.chow.com/food-news/151216/...

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: Jacquilynne

                            Polecat may or may not know this, but he's posted his way to Chow Blog go-to guy status over the years. One of my favorites among his finds: Phayul in Jackson Heights ... http://www.chow.com/food-news/86459/o... Also: Indian snacks on the edge of the city ... http://www.chow.com/food-news/7340/fr... He and JFores also tag-teamed Neerob, the Bangla standout in the Bronx ... http://www.chow.com/food-news/76126/b...

                            1. re: squid kun

                              Phayul is a great find. Neerob, while very good, wasn't overwhelming to me; certainly not worth a schlep from Brooklyn. Just opinions.

                              Phayul is consistently fresh and the range of dishes, while not vast, is intriguing. I love their spicy cucumber salad, which is soaked in a Szechuan peppercorn soy sauce!

                          2. The NY Times reviewed Spicy Lanka today and it was a good one so I.m pretty sure there will be customers there.

                            1. Thanks to all of this thread, we had a great dinner at Spicy Lanka last night -

                              We started with fish "rolls" three quite substantial deep fried rolls filled with shredded white fish, potato,dal, spices and herbs - great seasoning with the subtle touch of well roasted sri lankan curry spices, curry leaves and plenty of chile heat - well fried and delicate. This was followed with a big serving of mutton kothu roti - looks quite like the picture above, but I believe made with a bread (roti) rather than rice noodle base - very moist and light, delicious mutton (goat) curry with curry leaf and other herbs and vegetable shards - I could joyfully eat this every day - along with an order of beef devil and a vegetarian thali. The thali included an ample serving of red rice, beautifully cooked and fluffy, a slightly sour and very flavorful drumstick curry, including yogurt hard to eat but very worth the mess, a good bean curry, a dry eggplant curry excellent dry dal and a dryish fresh coconut and herb chutney, accompanied by a small bowl of very nice cucumber raita and a fried bread. the "devil" was a dry beef sautee - our dining partner said it reminded him of chinese orange beef, but with its bright sweet/sour flavor modified by significant amount of red chile spice, and the smoky flavor of maldive fish and the accompanying lime slice, it was satisfying and distinct..

                              Very high quality of cooking going on there,intriguiing and distinctive spicing - while there are not too many dishes, I hope that as patronage increases they will add more. Friendly waitress, pleasant surroundings - Wish I lived closer.... GO!

                              Our very ample meal, which yielded a big doggy bag, cost all of $35 (no drinks or desserts - we were too full.