Neighborhood Watch: Little Sri Lanka

America’s largest Sri Lankan community adds myriad forms of deliciousness to this outer borough

WORDS Paige Darrah
February 2020
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Illustration by Ayang Cempaka

Atop a hill with a view of Manhattan’s Freedom Tower, Vijayakumari Devdas (a.k.a. “Viji”) runs this Staten Island neighborhood’s now famous quick-eats joint. “Honestly, it was like a mini Sri Lanka when we opened New Asha here 20 years ago,” says Devdas. “Now? 100-percent Sri Lanka.” Word of New York City’s relatively suburban island reached their countrymen 8,700 miles away, inspiring expatriation during Sri Lanka’s Civil War in the ’90s. Devdas adds, “Our bit of Tompkinsville, Staten Island, is a small, peaceful town.” The now roughly 5,000-strong community brought their food with them, including South Asian fruit such as wood apple.

Little Sri Lanka’s main culinary drag lies along Victory Boulevard among myriad clapboard houses, where posted newspaper clippings sing the restaurants’ praises. During Sunday brunch buffets, Sinhalese dialect interspersed with the sound of children practicing traditional Ceylonese drums can be heard along the thoroughfare. As the enclave continues to grow, it may soon earn a new name: Big Sri Lanka.

Ceylon Curry

Staten Island, New York, United States

Mahesh Bandara’s family took over this 12-year-old hole-in-the-wall in 2017, and maintain its tiki-themed decor (think thatched hut complete with wood masks, plus framed posters of elephants wearing gold necklaces). Among the popular items are shrimp wade and crispy, bowl-shaped crepes called hoppers, made from coconut milk and fermented rice flour topped with a steamed egg.

ceyloncurrystatenisland.com

New Asha

Staten Island, New York, United States

Anthony Bourdain once visited this 12-seater seeking black curry, which he claimed was better than he had in Sri Lanka. More recently, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio popped by for string hoppers (which he ate with his hands, as instructed). Devdas notes, “Big guy. His head nearly touched the ceiling.”

New York Lanka

Staten Island, New York, United States

Formerly Ceylon Grocery, the store offers viscous, almost sap-like teas to be served to guests over ice. Wood apple is the most popular flavor (and also comes in jam form); coconut treacle is a close second.

ceylongrocery.business.site

Sagara

Staten Island, New York, United States

Husband and wife Sagara and Anuradha Hewabajgamage opened the community’s newest dining establishment in 2018, where a ceramic female Buddha sits in the corner and banquettes line the walls. On Sagara’s cashew-forward menu, kingfish and cuttlefish make a cardamom-infused appearance in the form of a delicious stew. The fish rice and curry with vegetables and papadum is a crowd-pleaser.

​​​​​​​Dosa Garden

Staten Island, New York, United States

Looking for beer of the non-ginger variety? The nabe’s fanciest eatery is also its sole purveyor of alcohol. Pop a Sri Lankan brew called Lion in honor of their homeland’s flag, which you can spot in many windows along Victory Boulevard. Sample pal payasam (vermicelli and cassava pearls cooked in milk and garnished with raisins and cashews)—a key dessert at local weddings.

dosagardenny.com

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