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Staten Island, a ferryboat’s ride south of Manhattan, is home to New York’s largest community of Sri Lankans – and most of the city’s Sri Lankan restaurants as well. A smaller Sri Lankan community can be found in the Queens neighborhood of Jamaica. In recent years people might have needed to drive an hour – braving the airport traffic near JFK, swinging down to the Belt Parkway that girds southern Brooklyn and crossing the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge into Staten Island – for a taste of Sri Lanka.

Lately, however, those cravings can be sated closer to home – at Queens Lanka in Jamaica, a specialty grocery that also boasts a small but mighty kitchen and a few seats to accommodate dine-in customers. There’s no room for the weekend buffet that figures prominently in several of Staten Island’s Sri Lankan restaurants, but for curry, kottu roti and banana-leaf-wrapped lamprais, there’s no need to leave the neighborhood.

Rasika Wetthasinghe is the chef; Suchira Wijayarathne runs the market. A helper assists with preparation in the kitchen a few days a week, and a number of the kitchen’s bespoke spice blends are prepared elsewhere, but by and large this is a two-man operation.

Now in their early forties, Rasika and Suchira met in 2013 at Papa’s Halal Chicken & Grill on Staten Island. Rasika had recently emigrated from Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital, where he had cooked for 14 years at various Hilton hotels; he would cook at Papa’s for eight more. Suchira, who hails from the town of Madampe, a short way up the coast, had arrived in the States some years earlier to study computer engineering. After those plans stalled, he had begun working for Papa’s, too.

Both men also financially support their families back in Sri Lanka, which has suffered a severe economic crisis in the past few years, marked by shortages of food and energy. Regular online video calls help the families keep in touch, but Rasika and Suchira hope to eventually bring their wives and children to join them in New York. Ready to strike out with a business venture of their own, the partners leased the nearby space that would become Queens Lanka, and opened in January 2022.

When we first stepped inside, during the early, frigid months of 2022, our eyes quickly lit upon a keep-warm case beside the register, filled with “short eats,” which at Queens Lanka include a variety of baked and fried buns, rolls, patties and pastries. Spicy fish, typically mackerel, is a common filling, and a favorite of ours. That day, however, we had more of an appetite, and so we also ordered a kottu roti – a chopped-roti stir-fry – from what was then a compact bill of fare.

While Rasika prepared our meal, we cruised the aisles to examine some of the imported groceries stocked by Suchira: curry powders and pastes; sambols, sauces, pickles and chutneys; spiced coffee; Asian vegetables preserved in brine; jams and jellies, not always featuring fruits we could quickly identify. We also noted a variety of cookies, toffees and other confections opposite the register. For the time being, Queens Lanka does not regularly prepare desserts of its own, but we’re willing to make do with packaged sweets.

Soon lunch was ready. The unprotected outdoor tables were out of the question, and so we sat at a stool just inside the door, where our kottu roti shared counter space with a cricket bat. The portion was large; that’s true of many dishes at Queens Lanka. Ultimately we carried half of it home.

“Is the taste good?” Rasika asked. He always seems to find a moment to step out of his kitchen and check on his dine-in customers. Rasika emphasizes that the flavors are held to a high standard; the quality of the dishes is what he would expect for himself: “I’m also eating that food.”

Queens Lanka serves only halal meats, Suchira added. Although he and Rasika are Buddhists – we noted a small seated Buddha on a platform by the entrance, near the ceiling, beside a security camera and an internet router – they are mindful of the many potential Muslim customers in the neighborhood.

Despite the close quarters and small menu, very quickly Queens Lanka received many favorable notices, online and in print. Suchira observed that customers from outside the local Sri Lankan community “continue to come on weekends” based on those early reviews.

Even on a weekday, during a recent visit, the dining counter was briefly filled by five members of an extended family who remembered Rasika’s cooking from Papa’s and had driven from Staten Island for lunch. “We miss his food,” one told us, as she corralled her young son. Very soon, we were able to settle in for lunch of our own: dal, kale and curried pumpkin, carrot and mango atop a deep bed of rice, accompanied by a cup of ginger tea.

Although seats are still at a premium – Suchira tells us that he and Rasika would like to add tables, and are exploring the possibilities – the menu has certainly expanded since our first visit. The most notable addition, offered in a half-dozen variations, is the lamprais. This dish is assembled from a “lump of rice” and a featured ingredient – in our case mutton, which in Sri Lanka denotes goat and not sheep – that are served on a banana leaf. They are joined by the likes of a hardboiled egg, a potato fritter, curried cashews, slivers of fried eggplant and seeni sambol, a lush caramelized onion relish. The banana leaf is folded over and skewered in place, and the lamprais is steamed.

At the counter, when we unfold the leaf, the lamprais releases a fragrant steam that hits us full in the face. We nearly swoon, then dig in.

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Dave Cook

Published on January 26, 2023

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