The dining room of Staten Island's New Asha is all styrofoam and steam tables. But when you step into the back kitchen, it's a wholly different world. Bamboo steamers gurgle over pots of boiling water and jars of homemade spice blends line the walls. A hand-powered drill and a machete are on hand to transform hirsute whole coconuts into snowy white mounds of freshly ground flesh.
'Sri Lankan' on Serious Eats
South Asian food in New York City is finally moving beyond tikka masala territory, and this week-long series will help you make the most of these heady times. Not sure of the difference between dosa and roti or how to distinguish good chaat from the rest? We've got you covered. Up today: Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Sri Lanka in south Asia's deep south.
Brian Fernando mastered French fine dining across 10 years at Le Papillon; he was chef de cuisine his last four years there. Now, he's combining modern French technique with flavor memories of his childhood and recipes from his Sri-Lankan father as chef/owner of Soma's 1601 Bar & Kitchen.
The sloping, tree-lined Victory Boulevard that crisscrosses Staten Island's Tompkinsville neighborhood offers visitors a spectacular view of Manhattan. But it's more than a pretty residential street with views that would make a Brooklyner rethink their rooftop: it's also the heart of the Sri Lankan community that's taken hold on Staten Island (with some great restaurants to boot).
It's also home to Lanka Grocery.
Staten Island is New York's destination for Sri Lankan food, but if you've never been, or aren't that familiar with the cuisine, it can be a little daunting to decide what and where to eat. Here's your complete guide to the best Sri Lankan cooking on the island.
Victory Boulevard is one of Staten Island's concentrated rows of immigrant deliciousness, especially where its sizable Sri Lankan community is concerned. And at New Asha, right across the street from the dosa mavens at Dosa Garden, there are some great snacks to be found at rock bottom prices.
When it comes to dining in the five boroughs, Staten Island often gets left off of the radar. People are willing to make the trip out to Flushing or Sunset Park, but rarely across the water. I'm sure part of it is the trip itself; to get to Dosa Garden I had to take the train to the ferry, then another train, and then I had to walk (uphill) for almost a mile. Yet the stretch of Victory Boulevard between the Tompkinsville stop of the Staten Island Railroad and the restaurant was positively flush with sights that would make even the most jaded New York foodie sit up and take notice: a roti shop, a Nigerian grocery, and multiple Sri Lankan restaurants.
The motley nature of Sri Lankan food has few rivals, as amply displayed at Banana Leaf, a narrow, dark, and winning restaurant on an unprepossessing strip in northern Chelsea. Here, an appetizer sings in Hindi, while one entree speaks fluent Thai and another whispers with a Dutch accent. The flavors on display demonstrate centuries of cross-cultural exchange, utterly upending any notion of indigenous purity.
Together, this East meets West pot roast is a mess of big, beautiful flavors—warmth from the spices, a slightly tart element due to the vinegar, and a richness from the beefy cooking juices combined with the coconut milk.
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