Walk into Baja Subs Market & Deli in Northridge and you’ll find the sandwiches, groceries, and tacos, as well as fridges full of Arizona iced tea and beer that you would expect at any corner store. The menu on the back wall offers a variety of tacos and burritos, and at lunchtime, you’d see workers might be plating carne asada with rice and beans — nothing out of a place that says it’s a Mexican grill on the outdoor signage. Then maybe you’d notice that some customers who initially stumbled in looking for tacos were eating what looked like curry or a fish bun. Eventually, your eyes would find their way to a small handwritten board on the wall confirming that this particular store also happens to serve some of the most remarkable Sri Lankan food in Los Angeles.
Owners Premil Jayasinghe and his wife Koshalie have been running Baja Subs since 2016, taking over from the Sri Lankan family that had been running the business for fifteen years prior. While the original owners served mostly Mexican food, the Jayasinghes have slowly expanded Baja’s Sri Lankan menu over the last four years. They started with a few dishes on the weekends for the local Sri Lankan community, but as word of mouth spread, they decided to offer Sri Lankan food throughout the week. Now, as Premil takes care of the front of house operations, his cousin and brother prepare the food full-time in the kitchen.
March was an unusually fateful month for the Jayasinghes. Not only did the pandemic slow down their business before the government completely shut down dining rooms, but Premil and Koshalie welcomed a new baby. In the early months of the pandemic, their business was hit hard. “Some days you only make $10, $15,” says Premil, “but you keep going.” Business picked back up over time with takeout, but it dropped again in the wake of curfews as protests protests swept the city in late May to early June. Premil says that business is down to 30 to 40 percent of what it used to be, but his customers — three-quarters of whom were fellow Sri Lankans in the pre-pandemic times — have continued to show their support during this difficult time. “Sometimes they order food even though they can make it at home,” he says gratefully.
Considering how difficult it is to find Sri Lankan food in the area — a handful of Sri Lankan places in LA are scattered through the San Fernando Valley — Baja Subs gets customers from all over Southern California. In recent months, Premil has delivered all the way to San Diego and Lancaster. While Baja Subs doesn’t do delivery, if a customer over 50 lives within five miles of the store, Premil will personally drive over the food so they don’t have to go outside. He remains unsure when they will reopen for dine-in service; with a newborn baby at home, he’s not taking unnecessary health risks.
Fortunately, Baja Subs’ business has always been takeout-heavy. Sri Lankan cuisine is heavily influenced by its neighboring regions of South India and Malaysia. Rice and meat curry is accompanied by a rotation of vegetable sides which may include dhal, beet curry, kale mallung (kale and coconut salad). Household Sri Lankan snacks, from buttery fish buns (maalu paan) to fish patties, are also popular for takeout.
Before the pandemic, on weekdays, Baja Subs primarily served a lunch buffet of curry and rice — no longer available since the advent of COVID-19 — but the best time to visit has always been on Friday and Saturday evenings, when the kitchen prepares hoppers and dosas to soak up offerings like mackerel curry, dhal, and other dishes laid out for the night. A staple of Sri Lankan cuisine, hoppers are typically formed as bowl-shaped pancakes with thin, crisped edges, made with fermented rice flour and coconut milk. Baja Subs serves egg hoppers — a hopper with an egg at the bottom — as well as string hoppers, which consist of rice-flour noodles that are shaped into a disc and steamed. Sri Lankan-style dosas are softer, thicker, and carry a more fermented flavor than what one might expect from a thinner, crispier Indian dosa.
On the weekends, Baja Subs also serves dishes like biryani — here, it’s topped with a relish of caramelized onions, boiled egg, cashews, and pineapple chutney — and lamprais. A traditional “takeout food” that is easy to transport, lamprais comes from the Dutch word lomprijst, which means “a packet of food,” and it is indeed that: meat curry, sambal, eggplant curry, short-grained rice, and perhaps a fried boiled egg. The lamprais might also include frikadeller, a fried ball of minced meat and potatoes that’s a byproduct of the Dutch colonization of Sri Lanka. Everything is wrapped together with banana leaves, then baked. People also come for kottu roti, a street food staple where flaky flatbread is chopped into small pieces then sauteed with meat, vegetables, and spices.
The majority of new customers looking for Sri Lankan food come by word of mouth and internet searches. “My sister found it a couple of years ago while searching for Sri Lankan food online,” says one customer who was waiting for her takeout order, “We’ve been coming here since then. [Sri Lankan food] is hard to find in LA.”
While Sri Lankan food is what draws the most customers here, the tacos are here to stay. Premil doesn’t plan to change the signage or to stop serving Mexican food, either. Although the Sri Lankan community doesn’t come for Baja’s Mexican menu, once in a while their kids would venture into the Mexican dishes. “Sometimes kids don’t like much spice,” Premil speculates, “so they’ll order tacos or burritos.” Premil plans to continue selling Mexican food to local workers during weekday lunches, which mostly consists of carne asada lunch plates. A couple of Mexican cooks still work in the kitchen to keep this side of the business going. “It’s not a big business,” says Premil, “but [it’s] still a good side income.” The multi-faceted identity of Baja Subs Market & Deli seems pretty unexpected, yet it’s just the kind of thing that works in a city like Los Angeles. For them, they’re just trying to feed their families and the community. “We never closed for a single day,” Premil says proudly.