For many years, Rasika Wetthasinghe, the co-owner of Queens Lanka, an extraordinary new restaurant and grocery store in Jamaica, Queens, worked as a chef for the Hilton hotel in his native Colombo, Sri Lanka. Shuttling between eight kitchens, he prepared menus that spanned the globe—Italian, Chinese, Sri Lankan. In the decade that preceded COVID, Sri Lanka’s post-civil-war economy showed promise, thanks largely to a newly vibrant tourism industry, buoyed by loans from wealthier countries—loans on which the mismanaged government eventually defaulted. Last month, after mass protests, the President fled the country and resigned by e-mail, abandoning his constituents in the face of mounting inflation, and food and fuel shortages.
Wetthasinghe had already left: in 2013, he moved to Staten Island, home to thousands of Sri Lankan immigrants, where he got a job at a restaurant called Papa’s Halal. There, he befriended Suchira Wijayarathne, who had come to New York in 2003, to study computer engineering, and who delivered food for Papa’s. When Wetthasinghe decided to open a place of his own, he asked Wijayarathne to join him. Both men have wives and children in Sri Lanka, whom they help to support and hope to bring to New York. In Jamaica, Queens—a stone’s throw from Jamaica Estates, a tony enclave of Tudor-style houses, where Donald Trump grew up—a Sri Lankan grocery store, with a kitchen, was for rent. Though neither man knew a soul in Queens, they signed the lease this past year and moved nearby.
The grocery shelves have been sparse of late—it’s grown harder to import packaged goods from Sri Lanka, Wijayarathne told me the other day. Still, he’s managed to stock Munchee Hawaian Cookies, crisp, simple biscuits made with coconut, the perfect accompaniment to a milky cup of Sri Lanka’s famous, fragrant Ceylon tea; enormous sacks of red rice; jars of passion-fruit jam and chili pastes; glass bottles of slightly viscous king-coconut water.
In the cramped kitchen, Wetthasinghe, who learned to cook when he was ten and enrolled in culinary school at eighteen, turns out an astonishing array of Sri Lankan specialties. That he works alone makes the menu even more impressive: this food may not be fussy, but it is far from simple, with most dishes comprising a thrilling number of components. A plate of “rice and curry,” one recent afternoon, included four varieties of the latter—made with yellow dal, or split peas; batons of beetroot, almost chocolate-like in their melty richness; jackfruit; and pineapple—in addition to a tantalizing tangle of sticky-sweet deep-fried sprats, and a version of a traditional relish called gotu kola sambol, with finely chopped kale, red onion, and tomato. For kottu, roti is sliced into noodle-like scraps that are stir-fried with egg, scallion, green chilies, and shredded carrot, plus whole cardamom pods, curry leaves, and morsels of fish, chicken, beef, or mutton, then served with a gravy seasoned with ginger, garlic, and onions.
For seating, there were two tables on the sidewalk, but nothing to protect them from the intense sun. Inside, I shared a tiny counter with a fan meant to supplement a struggling A.C. unit, no match for the humidity. And yet, the ribbon of fiery spice running through almost every dish tempered the steamy climate, like drinking hot tea. The pleasure of unwrapping one of Wetthasinghe’s lamprais—from the Dutch lomprijst, meaning “lump of rice,” a dish that originated with Sri Lanka’s Dutch Burgher population—transcended any discomfort. A lush, enormous banana leaf was folded carefully around a tightly packed pie chart of delights, over rice: slippery, soft curried cashews; dark, crispy snips of zippy batu moju, or fried-eggplant pickle; seeni sambol, a relish of supple tamarind-and-chili-glazed shallots; a fluffy curried-mackerel-and-potato fritter. Queens Lanka is a portal to another place, and a reminder of what is right in front of us. (Dishes $9-$18.) ♦