By Merrill Shindler, Daily News
The menu at the Sri Lankan restaurant called Apey Kade is heavy with dishes that, even if you’re a well-fed foodie, probably don’t ring any bells.
The names exude distant shores, even if you don’t really know what they are. There are string hoppers, for instance, along with gothamba rotti, kurakkan, pittu, mallum, faluda and wattalappan — and that’s just for starters.
It’s a little embarrassing (or perhaps just frustrating) to keep asking the affable staff what a particular dish is. And so, I resorted to pointing. Which didn’t get me that far either.
I asked what one dish I pointed at was, and was told it was noodles with vegetables. Oh.
Well, it was very tasty. As is so much of the food at Apey Kade. Sri Lanka, for those of you who aren’t very good at playing Trivial Pursuit, is what we used to call Ceylon, a good-sized island off the southeast coast of India, across the Gulf of Mannar in the Indian Ocean. That it’s a neighbor of India — and especially of the south of India, with its love of pancakes and pastries — is evident from the cooking.
This is a cuisine of curries and many herbs and spices, along with many dishes made with mangos and jackfruit. There are familiar words on the menu, such as biriyani, samosas, dhal and lassi.
But though Sri Lankan cooking is a cousin of Indian, it’s also very much a cuisine of its own. The best way to taste a bunch of dishes at once is at the daily buffets. Though chances are good you won’t really know what it is you’re tasting.
Oddly, the dishes on the steam table have no labels on them. I pointed this out to the owner, who nodded sagely, and said, “Yes, many people tell me that.” Maybe some day.
In the meantime, those eating here seem not to need a lot of annotation. The restaurant has been around for some two decades, during which time it was also known as the Curry Bowl.
The food is halal, the cooking that of Sri Lanka’s Tamil population. The amenities are few — virtually nonexistent in fact. You eat on paper plates using plastic utensils. There are a handful of Formica tables downstairs, and a few more upstairs, where the children of the owners seem to take over the tables for homework and play.
If anything, the buffet makes you want to come back for a meal of the many, many other dishes on the menu. The buffet runs to 10 items or so, while the menu offers five times that many. And anyway, the buffet is thick with dishes that work well on a steam table, while most of the pastries don’t. Still, it’s easy to make a big meal of the sundry vegetable curries; they do some very good work with eggplant here.
The flavor of coconut milk seems to be everywhere, along with the exoticism of jackfruit, and the serious heat of what the menu modestly refers to as “capsicum.”
Under all those sauces, it can be tricky to figure out whether you’re eating chicken, beef, mutton or fish — a good Sri Lankan curry dominates whatever it’s been cooked with. I was puzzled by the bones in a particularly meaty bit of chicken, and a bit embarrassed to discover I was eating king mackerel. Laugh all you want, my Reeboks would taste good under that curry.
But then, fun as the buffet is, there’s so much more. The wonderfully named string hoppers (a name that smacks of British expats, who probably couldn’t pronounce the real name) are essentially a tangle of rice vermicelli, served with curries and spices. There are also egg hoppers, which are snappy little pastry cups, filled with stews and sauces.
Many of the more substantial dishes are served as meals, with a trio of vegetables, sambals and rotti breads. The temptation may be to just point, and hope for the best. Like the string hoppers, the menu is heavy with complications.
Or, you could just order a meal of many pastries: of “Chinese” rolls and cutlets, patties and stuffed chiles, samosas and buns and sweet pancakes.
If you crave an avalanche of spice, go for the “deviled” dishes, chicken or beef. Wash it down with mango juice or mango lassi, a mango flavored yogurt drink.
Should you need more, there’s a Ceylonese shop called Sri Lankan Delight just down the street at 19016 Ventura Boulevard. Is this Little Colombo? Could be, though my favorite name for a city in Sri Lanka is Kandy. Do they sell candy in Kandy? Darned if I know. But they probably have great string hoppers.
Merrill Shindler is a Los Angeles-based freelance dining critic. Send him email at email@example.com.
Rating: 2.5 stars.
Address: 19662 Ventura Blvd., Tarzana.
Cuisine: Sri Lankan.
When: Lunch and dinner, Tuesday through Sunday.
Details: Soft drinks. No reservations.
Prices: About $12 per person.
Cards: MC, V.
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