We’re spoiled by the breadth and depth of food in L.A. restaurants, especially those that might be described by the overworked phrase “hidden gem” — those that fall comfortably outside of the 405/10/5/Ventura Freeway polygon and are found in a semi-industrial area, faded mall or someone’s backyard. We’re so spoiled that at this point, I’m almost disappointed if there isn’t a great, unassuming restaurant on a baked stretch of road between the tire shop and a random smog check place.
That brings us to Baja Sub (listed on Google Maps as “Baja Subs Market & Deli”), a wonderful Sri Lankan restaurant in Northridge that lives a quadruple or quintuple life as a Mexican grill and sandwich shop, convenience store and, for those who need it, cargo shipping service. And for what it’s worth, yes, it does happen to neighbor a tire shop and a smog check place.
The charming and unlikely name, Baja Sub, is a holdover from the business’ previous life as a Mexican restaurant and sandwich shop — owner Premil “Jay” Jayasinghe and his wife, Koshalie Thenabadu, bought the place in 2013 and still maintain a small Mexican menu but are largely focused on the cuisine of their home country, the island nation of Sri Lanka (sandwiches are currently on hold). They also operate a store in the same complex, Flavors of Asia, that sells Sri Lankan groceries.
Walking into Baja Sub, there’s a steam table to the front, a fridge wall with beer and soft drinks on one side and a smattering of tables on the other. A small Sri Lankan menu handwritten in chalk hangs unobtrusively on one wall. The rest of the shop is semicontrolled chaos: stacked banker’s boxes in the corner by a hand-washing sink; a shelf spilling over with Clorox wipes, playing cards and analgesics; a wire display rack with Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, Snickers bars and single-serving Planters nuts. The stream of Sri Lankan clientele is occasionally interrupted by a dude who just stopped in for a case of Modelo. The environment is, in other words, perfect.
Kottu roti is an easy place to begin your Sri Lankan cuisine journey — a pile of roti flatbread chopped into small, tender slivers and mixed together with onion, spices, chile and meat, if you feel like it (many of the restaurant’s dishes can be served vegan). Kottu roti is in the pantheon of great street food of the world: In cities throughout Sri Lanka, you’ll find hawkers preparing the dish, beating on their grill-tops with cleavers in sharp, staccato rhythms. At Baja Sub, it’s accompanied by a spicy, broth-like gravy that clears your sinuses and lubricates the dish.
While the kottu carbo-bomb is a good place to start, the curries are where you’re going to want to stay and explore a while. Lamb meat is soft and tender, tasting of cumin, with a light sweetness that eliminates nearly any trace of game. Jackfruit pulls apart like braised chicken thighs. The fish curry, a specialty at many Sri Lankan restaurants, will be most readers’ introduction to goraka, or the brindle berry, an earthy and sharply sour fruit that imparts an, as the French say, “I don’t know what” to the flavor profile. Just try it: It’s the secret sauce that adds surprising dimension to meaty chunks of thora fish, or king mackerel.
When I briefly traveled through Sri Lanka several years ago, most of my meals were in the form of numerous small dishes of vegetables, curries and sambola — garnishes — and centered around a small mountain of rice. It’s like eating the Goldberg Variations: a central theme from which to explore and to which you constantly return. Try some parippu, eat some rice. Try some moju, go back to the rice. Repeat until you’ve tried everything.
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And that is where Baja Sub really shines — the vegetable side dishes that not only hold their own but often eclipse the main courses. Parippu, a curried lentil dhal, is smooth and creamy. The slivers of eggplant called moju are so cooked down and caramelized that they resemble spicy candy. Finely grated mallung, usually made with gotu kola, a leafy green in the parsley family, is made in this case with kale. Added coconut tempers any bitterness and makes for a nice palate cleanser. Green beans (bonchi) are fork-tender, and the amba maluwa, mango curry, features fat slices of fruit that are so soft you’d swear you were eating a baked chunk of butternut squash were it not for the tangy sweetness.
About the spice levels: Wear clothes you feel comfortable sweating in. Nearly everything, save the rice, brings a level of heat that will leave you swearing Michael Mann was the chef. He’s not, of course — the chef in this case is Kumara Perera, a friend so close that Jayasinghe said he considers Perera to be his brother.
Weekends give you even more territory to explore — the Saturday evening buffet allows diners to try hoppers, thin crepes made with coconut and rice flour that are shaped like a bowl, thicker at their nadir and delicately brittle near the edges. String hoppers, extruded into long, noodly strands, are perfect for sopping up savory curries. (Hoppers can be ordered during the week, with advance notice.)
Saturdays are also the time to enjoy a dish called simply yellow rice, which has turmeric-stained basmati rice, seasoned with cardamom and cinnamon, mixed with different curries and cooked in an enormous banana leaf. This dish is similar, but not identical, to lamprais, or lump rice (available throughout the week), which also is cooked in a banana leaf but notably contains suduru samba — a shorter, stubbier rice — as well as hearty chunks of ash plantain, chicken and a fried meat croquette.
“Petrichor” is a marvelous word that roughly captures the essence of the smell of the earth after a good rain, and it’s the sense memory triggered in me by a packet of lamprais. It’s an evocative peaty smell, like wet tea leaves, and ties every individual component of the dish together.
We must not forget how spoiled we are in L.A. — and Baja Sub is a place that truly drives that point home.
8801 Reseda Blvd., Suite A, Northridge, (818) 993-7064
Prices: Most dishes $12-$18, Saturday evening buffet $19.99.
Details: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday, Wednesday-Friday, Sunday; 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday. No alcohol. Some off-street parking.
Recommended dishes: Kottu roti, lamprais, lamb and fish curries, all the vegetables.
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