Sri Lankan cuisine is a rarity in Southern California, typically reserved for distant San Fernando Valley and Orange County outposts, and even then the restaurants tend not to last for very long. For the past four years, a sunken strip mall called Foothill Center that also houses a vape shop, pet groomer, and acupuncture parlor, has been home to tiny Café Lanka.
The glass-fronted space houses green-tinted wood tables, blackboard menus, and photos of Sri Lanka, an island nation off the coast of India, including elephants and fishermen perched on poles in waves. Three gold statues of the beloved pachyderms rest on a speckled counter.
Nal and wife/chef Sue live nearby the restaurant but originally hail from Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka. Their neighbor across the Laccadive Sea heavily influenced the island’s cooking, but Sri Lankans developed their own dishes and spice profiles.
A great way to experience the restaurant is to order combinations, tri-compartmentalized bowls that come with a choice of curry, two vegetarian sides, and either biryani, brown, or white rice.
Café Lanka really excels with their vegetarian sides
Cubes of white meat chicken appear in multiple curries, including flame orange chicken tikka masala and rarely seen black curry. Black curry isn't actually black, but the dark spice blend features black curry powder, which features a grittier, almost muddy consistency and a milder, earthier flavor than other curries we've enjoyed.
Mutton curry is even better than Café Lanka’s chicken choices, with tender chunks of mature lamb that luxuriate in a dark curry crafted with ingredients like curry leaf, pandan leaf, lemongrass, clove and cardamom, allowing the already flavorful meat to form a fragrant aroma that completely masks gaminess typically associated with older animals.
Still, the best protein choice for my taste is meatball curry, featuring a quartet of beef and pork balls submerged in a light curry. These soft, crumbly meatballs are especially good when tucked into a swath of roti.
Two breads are baked in-house and both work well to sop up the saucy fare. Roti takes the form of flaky, pull-apart discs while naan ovals sport browning at the base, though this version is more supple than blistered.
When it comes to carb accompaniments, biryani is your best rice bet, with fluffy basmati grains cooked with mint, cilantro, tomato, and onion. If you're craving a more tactile experience, Café Lanka also sells string hoppers, springy handheld Sri Lankan rice vermicelli patties that cradle every protein or vegetable in sight.
Where Café Lanka really excels is with their vegetarian sides. Kale sambol is a nod to California, with a salty chop of cooked kale and coconut brightening up proceedings.
Okra is notorious for being a slimy vegetable, and the version at Café Lanka is no exception. Thankfully, Sue Perera manages to make seed-filled cross-sections appealing by tossing them with sweet onion and warming spices like turmeric, curry leaf, and a one-two punch of curry powders.
Pumpkin contributes to another knockout side dish. Skin-on chunks of firm kabocha squash are slow cooked with black curry powder, cardamom, and a bit of coconut milk, yielding more tender gourds and spicy flavor with a touch of sweetness that drills far below the surface.
Cashew curry is labor intensive, but worth the grind, with half-moons soaked for up to three days before simmering with cardamom, black curry powder, pandan leaf, coconut milk and more until soft.
Beverages include Thai iced tea, Sri Lankan coffee, fresh avocado juice, mango lassi, and Asian faluda, a floral mix of milk, rose syrup, jello, and ice cream.
For dessert, they were out of all cakes during each visit. Café Lanka’s sweet roster evidently includes Sri Lankan "love," coconut and fruit cakes. Date cake and pumpkin cake were also noticeably absent, though they did sell us a cool slab of Sri Lankan flan made with a dark unrefined sugar called jaggery that told a tale of two textures, with a firm base and a fluffier bubbled cap.
Videos have surfaced this summer showing bears seeking relief from the dry mountain heat in backyard pools. If they knew about Café Lanka's boldly flavored food, these bears would no doubt spend even more time in La Crescenta's foothills.
Café Lanka, 3436 Foothill Blvd., La Crescenta, 818.957.3800