Day 20: Sri Lanka
Sometimes the meals go great, sometimes they’re terrible and sometimes they lay somewhere in between. It is the last of these categories that is easily the most frustrating. If a big fancy restaurant serves me horrible food, I get to be as scathing as I want. If the food is remarkable, I can’t wait to write about the feeling of elation I have during the drive home. But if I come upon a small restaurant, seemingly struggling to find business, where the people are nice and the food is average, this whole thing gets a little more difficult. After being blown away by the food of Pakistan, which resides on one side of India and shares some similarities with its cuisine, I was very excited to see what Sri Lanka, an island on the other side, would have to offer. I had read Chowhound posts about string hoppers and Wikipedia tales of curries so fiery that restaurants in Sri Lanka need to offer “Western” versions of their menus for out-of-towners. Sri Lanka in my mind had become a mythical food island paradise. A place where the curries are magical and the styles can transform the way you think about food. Unfortunately, things do not always turn out the way you’d like.
Curry Bowl in Tarzana. My dad and step mom have Back To School Night for my five year old brother, so I decided it was the perfect time to take the little guy along for a food adventure. On the slow, rush-hour-traffic infused drive to Tarzana, I ask my young brother what he wants for his nickname on the website. “I don’t know. That’s really hard. Oh. I got it. Super Jake. I’m Super Jake.” Works for me. So Super Jake and I battle our way up the murky mountain that is the 405 freeway as he slowly realizes that Brother Noah might drive a little further away for restaurants than mom and dad do.
“I’m really hungry. Are we almost there?” he asks
“I’m hungry too.” I say.
“Me too.” He says. “What did you eat today?”
“Just a smoothie. I only ate a little bit today.”
“Me too. Only a little bit. I just had lunch and a snack.”
“Did you have breakfast?”
“Yeah. I just had three things. Breakfast, lunch and a snack.”
We arrive at our destination and Super Jake is fast asleep. With great effort, I manage to wake him and we head inside. This is where I see two things which are often bad, but when operating in conjunction are even worse: a buffet and an empty restaurant. The man behind the counter is extremely kind and I can tell he really wants me to like the food. But there is no menu, no cooking going on behind him and it’s quickly apparent that what they’ve got is what I’m eating. He gives me a quick explanation of each dish, then I order a mango juice and start making plates for Super Jake and I.
The food is not bad. It’s simply adequate. I can get a hint of the differences between Indian and Sri Lankan, but everything just seems incredibly muted. Chicken curry, fried chicken, fish curry, lentils, rice, chopped up vermicelli noodles, vegetable soup, cooked vegetables— they are all distinct but nothing is vibrant. In regards to that famous Sri Lankan heat, the sole thing which even comes close to being very spicy is an onion salad with slices of jalapeño in it. The only part of the meal which is basically inedible is the fish curry, which cannot possibly be very fresh. As for Super Jake, he likes the meal just fine, but he’s mostly eating the vermicelli, the rice and the fried chicken pieces that I pull off of the bone for him. He takes a few bites of vegetables which are too spicy for him and asks “What’s the thing that’s good for helping with spicy that they have with guacamole?” Luckily, I had been briefed on this by my family and know that the answer is “sour cream”. But I manage to convince him that mango juice works well too.
I clear our plates and the man behind the counter, as well as some other men lingering out front who I have come to realize are involved in the restaurant as well, give me the smile and thank you that says “Please come back. We really, really need your business.” I feel bad for them because they are trying hard. But the buffet, which used to only exist during lunch, feels like the familiar attempt of a restaurant that wants to “shake things up” to see how they can keep business afloat. I sincerely hope that my impressions are incorrect and that they are simply having an off night. I hope the restaurant is usually astounding and I managed to be there at the exact moment that things went wrong. Regardless of where the actual truth lies, I do know that none of this will deter me from my general feeling that the food of Sri Lanka might just be amazing. Unfortunately, right now, I am no closer to finding out.
19662 Ventura Blvd
Tarzana, CA 91356
Food Breakdown: 1 non-alcoholic beverage, 1 all you can eat buffet, kid eats free
Distance From My House: 18.8 miles