As the Sri Lankan immigrant community in Jamaica, Queens follows the devastating economic crisis and the deadly protests and food shortages it’s fueled in their native country, Queens Lanka — a rare Sri Lankan restaurant and grocery store that opened in the borough five months ago — is a reminder of home. It’s a corner spot, located at 88-01 182nd Place, at the end of a dead end street, where partners and former Staten Island restaurant veterans Rasika Wetthasinghe and Suchira Wijayarathne serve the neighborhood traditional comfort foods like the complex, banana leaf-wrapped lamprais, and the popular street food kottu, that have been, until now, mainly limited to Staten Island’s Sri Lankan restaurant community.
“Everybody’s in a sad situation,” says Wetthasinghe, who, like many of his customers, is sending money back to family members in Sri Lanka. But Queens Lanka offers a brief respite with true-to-home spice levels and seasonings threaded throughout its dishes.
“I want to give [people] the Sri Lankan style,” Wetthasinghe says. “Our taste.”
At the shop, Wettasinghe’s food is a balm to his worried customers. One bestseller has been the lamprais, a rice dish with multiple components including a main meat or vegetable like mutton or kingfish; rice cooked in coconut milk and ghee; eggplant moju (skinny strips of sweet and sour caramelized eggplant); and cashew curry. Whole pandan leaves, curry leaves, cardamom, cloves, and lemongrass make their way into several parts of the multifaceted dish. Wetthasinghe then wraps and steams everything in banana leaves.
“It’s very difficult to make this at home so people are happy they can get it here,” says Wetthasinghe.
He focuses on popular Sri Lankan comfort foods at the shop, serving entrees like an elaborate rice and curry dish; kottu (minced roti sautéed with vegetables); breads like thick coconut roti with a fiery housemade sambol for dipping; drinking snacks like fried cashews; and “short eats” or fried pastries like half-moon patties stuffed with chicken. Wetthasinghe is Buddhist but he sources halal meats to feed the significant local Muslim Sri Lankan population, and during Ramadan, he fielded constant phone orders for evening pick-ups.
Queens Lanka has been fulfilling the food needs of the local Sri Lankan community for awhile. In January, Wetthasinghe and Wijayarathne scrubbed the former LakFood grocery store space clean, and obtained a commercial cooking permit for Queens Lanka, which operates as both restaurant and grocery store. Upon entry, the kitchen is located at the left, and the grocery aisles on the right with the counter at the middle. A tiny dining section comprises three stools underneath a narrow counter. Three aisles are stocked with Sri Lankan imports like mango and woodapple jams, whole pandan, green chile paste, dried anchovies, curry powders, and cookies. The retail operation is helmed by Wijayarathne, who’s been tackling delayed exports out of the currently troubled Sri Lanka.
Behind the see-through plastic curtain streaming down from the ceiling to the counter, Wijayarathne handles the register and Wettasinghe commands the stove. An exuberant home cook since the age of 13 and a veteran chef during a 14-year tenure at the Hilton Hotel in Colombo — the commercial capital of Sri Lanka where violent protests erupted — and most recently at Papa’s Halal in Staten Island for eight years, Wetthasinghe is now cooking inside a kitchen he can call his own.
“I try to [make] whatever [customers] want,” says Wijayarathne, while explaining that Sri Lankans have limited access to their country’s food without the hour-and-half drive to Staten Island. The Tompkinsville neighborhood there, often referred to as Little Sri Lanka, is home to one of the largest communities of the diaspora, and as such, the largest concentration of Sri Lankan restaurants in the city.
“I know it looks like a deli but it’s a place where I can do my style, my menu,” Wetthasinghe says. “This is mine, you know? And I’m really happy because the customer’s happy.”
Queens Lanka is open from 10 am to 8:30 pm every day.