Sri Lankan specialties in heart of Malden
My friend Sarah could hardly contain herself. She had already heard from a doctor who worked in Sri Lanka about Biryani Park. Now she’s telling me: “It’s all over the blogs!’’
The same is true for my in-the-know South Asian neighbor, who’s tweeting it to his friends, and begging me to go. It’s a trek to Malden - on traffic-clogged Route 99 - that I initially resisted. But I soon found that those who appreciate the authentic cuisine are already making regular trips. One weekday, it’s a group of Sri Lankan guys from Boston University, on another, a family from Acton.
Owner Premila Mathews has created an otherworldly space out of what could have been just another large storefront. Bold, wide stripes of color rule the airy 20-seat dining room, and even the exterior of the building. The restaurant has a clean, floral, and lightly spiced aroma: It might be the kitchen, the various Sri Lankan hot peppers out for sale, or, somehow, the Indian Ocean itself. “It doesn’t feel like we’re in Boston,’’ suggests one of my tablemates. Others chime in with comparisons to Tahiti, South India, and beachside San Diego. But those who know tell me it is pure Sri Lanka. The space, so effortlessly bright, unique, and fragrant, stands in proud and mocking contrast to those twin sentinels of American culture across the street: Valvoline and McDonald’s.
Sri Lankan cuisine has a canon all its own. String hoppers ($9.99), thin noodles house-made from milled red rice, are coiled in small nests to be dipped in accompanying dishes of hothi (sauteed onion, tomato, fresh curry leaf, tumeric, and rice flour) and sambal (shredded coconut and roasted rice flour). The hearty noodles, properly eaten with your hands, provide a textured contrast to the thought-provoking and utterly delicious sauces.
Two other traditional staples come with hothi and sambal. Pittu ($9.99), tasty steamed cylinders of roasted-and-crumbled rice flour with coconut, are cooked in an ancient contraption involving hollowed out bamboo. And dosas ($9.99), a crepe of sorts made from urid dhal (an Asian black bean) and rice flour, is flavored with fenugreek leaves.
Heartier meals abound. So-called “devilled grills’’ of chicken, goat, beef, lamb, or various seafoods ($9.99-$11.49) are an aromatic mix of Sri Lankan spices and lots of what the restaurant calls “capsicum’’: roasted hot red chili peppers. The goat is tender and tasty.
Too often, “curry’’ means sparse bits swimming in gloppy sauce. The traditional dry curries at Biryani Park are like a sophisticated cousin: Concentrated flavor clings to tender meat, forkful after tidy forkful. The technique applied to eggplant is sublime - a dish you will remember, and long for, days after. The samosa chaat ($5.99) innovates as well. A bowl of gently broken samosas (deep fried potato and vegetable crescents) solves the super-heated-center and crumbling-apart problems of the typical Indian version, where they’ are served whole on a plate. Biryani Park’s user-friendly version is garnished with savory chutney. With 24-hours notice, varied sampler platters called lamprais are prepared for groups.
Mathews left her job as an executive at the accounting firm Deloitte & Touche to open the restaurant in June. She invited “all the old Sri Lankan ladies in Boston’’ to consult with head chef Veera Muthu on the best preparations of traditional dishes. Prior to his arrival in Boston, Muthu honed his skills at the Marriott in Hyderabad, India’s IT outsourcing capital, and then as a chef (he admitted reluctantly) for Carnival Cruise Lines. General manager Kanupriya Goel was working as an architect. The three bring a level of sophistication to the service, and menu, that is quite unexpected at a place that also sells Crunk grape energy drink.
Swept up in an economic downturn, the team at Biryani Park have reacted with a brilliant turn of innovation: Combine who they are with what they know. It’s a homespun restaurant with low cost structure and world-class taste. As you approach, when you see the McDonald’s on the right, take a hard left. And see how they do it.
Ike DeLorenzo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.