Two Staten Island restaurant veterans open a rare spot for Sri Lankan food in Queens

Like the Sri Lankan immigrant community in Jamaica, Queens follows the devastating economic crisis and deadly protests and food shortages that are fueled in their native Queens Lanka – a rare Sri Lankan restaurant and grocery store that opened in the neighborhood. five months ago – is a souvenir from home. It’s a corner spot, located at 88-01 182nd Place, at the end of a cul-de-sac, where Staten Island restaurant partners and former veterans Rasika Wetthasinghe and Suchira Wijayarathne serve traditional neighborhood foods, such as the shrouded lamprais complex. in banana leaf, and the popular street food kottu, which has, until now, been mainly limited to the Sri Lankan restaurant community of Staten Island.

Owners Rasika Wetthasinghe (left) and Suchira Wijayarathne.

“Everyone is in a sad situation,” says Wetthasinghe, who, like many of his clients, is sending money back to family members in Sri Lanka. But Queens Lanka offers a brief respite with levels of home-made spices and seasonings crammed into their dishes.

“I want to give [people] Sri Lankan style,” says Wetthasinghe. “Our taste.”

In the store, Wettasinghe’s food is a balm for his worried customers. A best seller was lamprais, a rice dish with several components, including a main meat or vegetable such as mutton or kingfish; rice cooked in coconut milk and ghee; eggplant moju (thin strips of sweet and sour caramelized eggplant); and cashew curry. Whole pandan leaves, curry leaves, cardamom, cloves and lemongrass make their way into various parts of the multi-faceted dish. Wetthasinghe then wraps and cooks everything in banana leaves.

“It’s very difficult to do it at home, so people are happy to be able to do it here,” says Wetthasinghe.

Two people hold plates with lamprais, a plate of rice with meat and vegetables.

Chicken and seafood fried rice (left) and egg lamprais.

He focuses on popular Sri Lankan foods at the store, serving entrees such as an elaborate rice and curry dish; kottu (chopped roti sautéed with vegetables); breads like thick coconut roti with a fiery homemade sambol for dipping; drinking snacks like fried cashews; and “snacks” or fried pastries like half moon burgers stuffed with chicken. Wetthasinghe is a Buddhist but obtains halal meats to feed Sri Lanka’s significant local Muslim population, and during Ramadan he has responded to constant phone requests for overnight pick-ups.

Queens Lanka has been supplying the food needs of the local Sri Lankan community for some time. In January, Wetthasinghe and Wijayarathne cleaned up the former LakFood grocery store space and obtained a commercial license to cook for Queens Lanka, which doubles as a restaurant and grocery store. At the entrance, the kitchen is located on the left and the supermarket aisles on the right with the counter in the middle. A small dining section comprises three stools under a narrow bar. Three aisles are stocked with imports from Sri Lanka such as mango and apple compotes, whole pandan, green pepper paste, dried anchovies, curry powder and crackers. The retail operation is led by Wijayarathne, who has been experiencing delays in exports from the currently troubled Sri Lanka.

Puff pastries in two ways are laid out on a plate at Queens Lanka, a Sri Lankan restaurant in Jamaica.

“Short eats”, fried pastries stuffed with fish and egg (bottom) and seasoned chicken.

Four coconut roti are arranged on a banana leaf.

Coconut roti arranged on a banana leaf.

Behind the transparent plastic curtain that descends from the ceiling to the counter, Wijayarathne answers the register and Wettasinghe commands the stove. An exuberant home cook since age 13 and a veteran chef during a 14-year tenure at the Hilton Hotel in Colombo – Sri Lanka’s commercial capital where violent protests erupted – and more recently at Papa’s Halal on Staten Island for eight years, Wetthasinghe now he’s cooking inside a kitchen he can call his own.

“I try [make] whatever it is [customers] want,” says Wijayarathne, as he explains that Sri Lankans have limited access to their country’s food without the 1.5-hour drive to Staten Island. The Tompkinsville neighborhood, often referred to as Little Sri Lanka, is home to one of the largest diaspora communities and, as such, the largest concentration of Sri Lankan restaurants in the city.

“I know it looks like a deli, but it’s a place where I can make my style, my menu,” says Wetthasinghe. “This is mine, you know? And I’m very happy because the customer is happy.”

Queens Lanka is open from 10am to 8.30pm every day.

Outside of Queens Lanka, a Sri Lankan restaurant in the borough of Queens, Jamaica.

Out of Queens Lanka in Jamaica, Queens.

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