Dining review: Exotic fare for a fast-food price at Cafe Lanka

Watching and wondering for months, I was thrilled when the doors to the new Cafe Lanka finally opened last weekend. Could it be Sri Lankan food? Yes, it is, but with an American twist.

Sri Lanka has always held a strange fascination for me. Everyone I’ve ever met from there has been preternaturally happy and disarmingly good-looking. I imagine it as an exotic place with interesting food. An island nation at the southern tip of India, Sri Lanka is host to a cuisine that is influenced by native foods like coconut and cinnamon but also by the cuisines of neighboring countries (India, Thailand), foods of cultures that colonized it (Portugal, Netherlands), and spices brought by foreigners who stopped by as they made their way along the Silk Road.

Cafe Lanka is just a small spot with a small menu in a La Crescenta mini-mall, but the flavors within are as big as a Sri Lankan elephant. Curries, sambols and rice are typical Sri Lankan fare, but they are as different as the cooks who make them. In this case, the cooks are the ebullient husband-and-wife team Subodha Dharmathma and Mahesh Berera. They put their generosity of spirit into their food and drink, and you can taste it.

Subodha’s avocado juice, for instance, uses only fresh avocados (“no powders”) along with what she calls ice cream, but what I think may be closer to sweetened condensed milk, and water ($3.75). It’s refreshing and totally unique. So is the sweet taro drink ($2.75), which tastes nothing like the horrid taro dish, poi, you find at Hawaiian luaus. This has essence of coconut and other island spices. I mention the drinks first because they are practically meals unto themselves, and drinks such as the sweet, yogurt-y mango lassi ($2.75) have a nice cooling effect when accompanying the spicy entrees.

Every entree item we tried was a new thrill. The spicy Asian sambol is a dark, thick paste made from caramelized onions, ground chilies, curry and dried tuna chips. The tuna chips are the texture of tender beef jerky and give the spread a pleasant fish flavor. On opening day, Subodha and Mahesh served the sambol with kiribath or “milk rice,” a heavenly sweetened dense rice cake. I preferred this combination to the way they normally serve the sambol, which is on a French roll ($4.) In fact, all the items (the sambol, Asian meatballs, masala chicken, Asian-style tuna and turkey with homemade pesto) are served on a French roll. I can only surmise that this is their way of making their foods either more portable or more palatable for the typical American. One can always get a side of white rice, or better yet, biryani, instead of the roll.

The chicken biryani at Cafe Lanka ($4.99) is a visual and sensual feast. The amber, orange and red flecks of the rice remind one of flames and the aroma of spices like cardamom and coriander prepare you for the flavors ahead. On top of the rice sits tender morsels of spiced chicken and a curry gravy. Aside from the gravy, there’s an interesting dryness to the entrees. Not that the meat is dried out; rather, the preparation technique is similar to dry-rubbed spareribs. The sparseness of sauces probably keeps the calorie levels down but the flavor levels up.

One final mention must be made about the Ceylon Iced Coffee ($1.50.) It’s like a Javanese spice boat crashed into an island coffee plantation and got rained on by sweet milk. Better than mega coffee shop fare any day.

The space itself is casual, cheerful and clean with walls the color of avocado juice and mango lassi. The prices are very reasonable, and the service couldn’t be more gracious.

LISA DUPUY has written about travel, entertainment and food for 25 years. She can be reached at LDupuy@aol.com

What: Cafe Lanka

Where: 3436-A Foothill Blvd., La Crescenta

When: Monday through Sunday, 8 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. (subject to change)

Prices: Sandwiches and biryanis $4-$4.99, beverages $1.50-$3.75, breakfast specials $2.50-$3

Contact: (818) 957-3800

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