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Dining review: Exotic fare for a fast-food price at Cafe Lanka

March 09, 2012|By Lisa Dupuy
(Raul Roa/Staff…)

Watching and wondering for months, I was thrilled when the doors to the new Cafe Lanka finally opened last weekend. Could it be Sri Lankan food? Yes, it is, but with an American twist.

Sri Lanka has always held a strange fascination for me. Everyone I’ve ever met from there has been preternaturally happy and disarmingly good-looking. I imagine it as an exotic place with interesting food. An island nation at the southern tip of India, Sri Lanka is host to a cuisine that is influenced by native foods like coconut and cinnamon but also by the cuisines of neighboring countries (India, Thailand), foods of cultures that colonized it (Portugal, Netherlands), and spices brought by foreigners who stopped by as they made their way along the Silk Road.

Cafe Lanka is just a small spot with a small menu in a La Crescenta mini-mall, but the flavors within are as big as a Sri Lankan elephant. Curries, sambols and rice are typical Sri Lankan fare, but they are as different as the cooks who make them. In this case, the cooks are the ebullient husband-and-wife team Subodha Dharmathma and Mahesh Berera. They put their generosity of spirit into their food and drink, and you can taste it.

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Subodha’s avocado juice, for instance, uses only fresh avocados (“no powders”) along with what she calls ice cream, but what I think may be closer to sweetened condensed milk, and water ($3.75). It’s refreshing and totally unique. So is the sweet taro drink ($2.75), which tastes nothing like the horrid taro dish, poi, you find at Hawaiian luaus. This has essence of coconut and other island spices. I mention the drinks first because they are practically meals unto themselves, and drinks such as the sweet, yogurt-y mango lassi ($2.75) have a nice cooling effect when accompanying the spicy entrees.

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