The first time I went to what would become my favorite restaurant in New York, it was an accident. A friend and I dropped into Sigiri, in the East Village, after our original plan fell through. I had no idea at the time that I was eating at the only Sri Lankan restaurant in Manhattan, nor did I know much about the cuisine. We went because it was close and it had a BYOB policy. Now I’ve been back countless times. I crave the cardamom-heavy beef “cutlet” croquettes and the black pork curry, which can be laced, if you’d like, with ghost pepper.
At the beginning of the year, I was relieved to learn that Sigiri had made it through the pandemic (as did its sister restaurant in Edison). But I also wondered why the restaurant managed to feel so unique. When I asked a server at Sigiri where else I could go, he told me, “All the Sri Lankan restaurants are in Staten Island.”
Equipped with this knowledge, I enlisted a hungry friend with a car, and we set out over the Verrazzano to learn more. Staten Island is home to one of the largest Sri Lankan diasporas in the world, but I had — I’ll admit — never made the trip. Our first stop was Randiwa, which is the most inland and is relatively isolated from the other Sri Lankan restaurants on Staten Island. It lies in a mini strip mall facing Richmond Avenue between a fitness studio and a Vietnamese restaurant. Underneath the awning are several banners with pictures of the food centered around a large photo of lamprais, the leaf-wrapped rice that’s packed with stews and other toppings, captioned with an explanation of the dish’s Dutch colonizer origins, which also details the days-long process required to make Randiwa’s version (and which the menu spells “lamprie”).
Even though the entrance offers an explainer on the food, the diners inside on this Saturday afternoon looked comfortable enough to be regulars, like the two guys chatting over their roti and bowls of curry. At the next table over, an elderly couple and their adult son shared a few dishes, and next to us, a guy wearing flip-flops was eating lamprais alone.
It took a while for my friend and me to decide on what to order. Obviously we wanted the lamprais, but we hadn’t come this far to stop at one dish, so we started things off with an assortment of spicy fritters, black lamb curry, and hot fried cuttlefish, which, like a lot of other dishes on the menu, seemed to have a Chinese influence, though the spices were distinctly not.
Some Sri Lankan dishes share the same name as their Indian counterparts — including roti, dosa, or biryani — but the seasonings are uniquely Sri Lankan. To better understand the cuisine, I borrowed my friend’s copy of Rice & Curry: Sri Lankan Home Cooking, an incredible resource, now out of print, by S.H. Fernando, a Staten Island scholar who, in addition to writing about Sri Lankan food, is the author of From the Streets of Shaolin: The Wu-Tang Saga. According to Rice & Curry, two defining features of Sri Lankan cuisine are its exceptionally fiery nature and its preference for coconut oil and coconut milk over the ghee and yogurt typically found in Indian cooking. It also bears the lasting influences of colonialism as Sri Lanka was under rule by the Portuguese, Dutch, and British before achieving independence in 1948.
When Randiwa’s famous lamprais arrived, leaves cinched in place with a paper umbrella, we knew were in over our heads. The thing about food excursions like these is you should try to arrive with a small group in the interest of sharing as many things as possible. The two of us were already getting full, but we were only on our first stop. After informing the waiter that we weren’t able to take a doggie bag and paying the $73 bill, we hopped in the car and drove east toward a cluster of Sri Lankan businesses at the intersection of Victory Boulevard and Cebra Avenue in Tompkinsville, about 30 minutes away.
To serve as a break before our next meal, we stopped at Lanka Grocery to wander the aisles of ingredients, noticing where they overlapped with Indian markets — in staples such as rice, lentils, and coconuts — and where they differed, as with jarred sambals, dark-roasted curry powder, and dried fish. Checking out with some curry powder, I asked the guy at the register where to find the best Sri Lankan food, and he pointed his finger at New Asha, across the street.
When we got there, we weren’t entirely sure what to order from the steam trays, but the owner, Viji, sensing our indecision, took the lead and insisted on preparing something just right for us. “I’ll make you a plate,” she said decisively. Happy to leave the selection to an expert, I grabbed a passion-fruit drink from the fridge and sat down at one of the dozen or so haphazardly arranged chairs behind a table of two guys who also appeared to be under Viji’s observation.
The first thing she brought out was the kottu roti, molded and turned out onto our plate from a round aluminum container. It’s a dish made of chopped bits of roti and fried with chicken, some vegetables, and a little bit of curry. It was wonderful and filling — an issue, as we sensed Viji was gauging our happiness based on how much we consumed, much as she was with the other table in the restaurant, to whom she was now serving dessert.
Following the kottu roti was a sampler rice plate with a little bit of everything New Asha is known for: curried jackfruit that made for a convincing meat substitute as well as fish, chicken, lentils, and potato-leek curry garnished with a side of raw red-onion salad. After a certain point, we had to concede that we could not eat any more and accepted Viji’s offer to wrap up our leftovers to take with us.
I returned to Staten Island the next day, this time via the ferry, to try Lakruwana, which has a popular all-you-can-eat weekend buffet. A bus line from the ferry terminal will get you pretty close to the restaurant, but I opted for a $7 Uber. “Are you from Staten Island?” asked my driver. I told him no. “One hundred years ago, this area used to be like Bleecker Street,” he said, indicating the shuttered businesses we passed on our way to the restaurant, which was a rare bright spot in the area with its colorful mural painted on the exterior brick of the building. There were a couple of tables of people in technical gear splitting a six-pack of Modelo in the outdoor section, but I went inside to appreciate the wall-to-wall décor Lakruwana is known for.
A handful of families were scattered at tables around the restaurant, and everyone was there for the buffet, which at $17.37 (cash only!) is an undeniable deal. I donned the plastic glove provided at my seat before heading to the row of flame-warmed clay pots and loading my plate with vegetable fried rice, deviled chicken, black pork curry, caramelized eggplant, and chopped kale with coconut. As I dug in, I watched people go back for seconds before a steady stream of couples and families came in just as the sun started to set. As evening turned to night, I figured it was my cue to go — I had a ferry to catch.