Over seven years ago, when I moved to Los Angeles, there was a Sri Lankan restaurant in Hollywood on Wilcox called Chamika, which was supposed to be amazing. Of course by the time I found out about it, that restaurant was closed, priced out of business by inflated rents from the neighborhood’s burgeoning bar scene. My friend’s brother, who frequented Chamika, said he heard another Sri Lankan restaurant had sprouted up in the west Valley burg of Tarzana. He couldn’t remember the name. Without much to go on, I exited the 101 at Balboa and drove west along Ventura Boulevard, scouring the storefronts for Sri Lankan clues. I spotted a promising mini-mall sign: “Sri Lankan Delight.” It was Sri Lankan alright, but it was a grocery that mainly stocked dry goods. I asked the proprietor if he knew of any Sri Lankan restaurants in the area. He said, “Right down the street. Curry Bowl.” Five minutes later, I was eating string hoppers.
Curry Bowl is owned by Rukshan Pillai, his wife Alishka, and her brother. They took over the small space three years ago from Sri Lankan Café, to capitalize on the built-in customer base. Sri Lankan restaurants are hard to come by. Rukshan said Curry Bowl is the only Sri Lankan restaurant in Southern California. The next closest restaurant of its kind is in Santa Cruz, approximately 350 miles north. Somehow I don’t think they’re taking each other’s business.
Just because there’s just one restaurant representing a particular cuisine in a given region isn’t reason enough to go there. The food also has to be good. Happily, after eating at Curry Bowl twice, I’m convinced the chefs know what they’re doing. The best time to go to Curry Bowl is for Sunday Brunch, when they offer most of their greatest hits in a countertop buffet. For $9.99 per person, there’s a staggering array of flavors on display.
Before my trips to Curry Bowl, my only Sri Lankan point of reference (other than the tsunami) was that one of my favorite new singers, M.I.A., grew up there. Aided by hours of post-meal Googling, I learned a lot about Sri Lanka, and filled in the cracks on what I ate. Here are my findings.
Sri Lanka is an island nation off the eastern shore of India, formerly known as Ceylon. Throughout history, Sri Lanka has been occupied by the Portuguese (1505-1658), Dutch (1640-1796) and British (1796-1948). Influenced by all three occupiers, plus nearby India, Sri Lanka has culinary flavors all its own.
Then I proceeded to pile on dishes from steaming metal bins: curry with yellow lentils; string hopper pillau; chicken biriyani; yellow curry with potatoes; mutton curry; seasoned potatoes; “fried chicken;” spicy chicken curry; and Kiri Hodi, coconut milk soup.
I ladled various curries over my string hoppers. My favorite dishes included the “fried chicken,” which was coated liberally in a spice mixture and pan-fried, a little chewy but tasty. The pillau featured fluffy, spice-soaked string hopper shreds. The biriyani was crusty and good, loaded with chunks of chicken. The mutton featured tender chunks of adult lamb. The potatoes were delicious, tossed with an almost equal weight of dry spices. The flavors were new and interesting, and the level of heat kept building in my mouth with each extra bite.
.It was well worth the effort to find Curry Bowl. I wonder how many other obscure cuisines are being served in out-of-the-way corners of Los Angeles County. I’m willing to keep hunting. Anybody know where to find a café that specializes in the foods of Swaziland, Herzegovina, or Suriname?