In March 2016, a Farmers Branch strip mall became host to the only Sri Lankan restaurant in Texas. There wasn’t much hype or fanfare; there were no high-profile food bloggers on hand for the opening. But SpicyZest might be the most interesting Dallas food news of 2016.
SpicyZest has spent its first year building a customer base the old-fashioned way, with warm hospitality and strong word-of-mouth. The restaurant — just four tables and counter seating — makes no compromises on food, importing its spices and specialty ingredients from Sri Lanka rather than making substitutions. The result is among the most charming restaurants in North Texas.
A big part of the charm is chef-owner Nimidu Senaratne, a Sri Lanka native whose education in the hospitality industry took him first to the Sentosa island resort in Singapore and then to the United States. Senaratne waits on many a table himself, talking first-timers through Sri Lankan specialties and sincerely seeking feedback on his cooking. (When he’s busy in the kitchen, service does become more lackadaisical.)
“I started slow, very slow,” Senaratne says of his business. SpicyZest was a catering service operated from his home for two years before it became a restaurant; then it opened for takeout orders only. “I started this business as a to-go place,” he explains, “but people started telling me, ‘Hey, can you have a couple of tables here?’ I started with paper plates because I couldn’t afford a dishwasher, but customers told me, ‘You should buy real plates.’ I’m going step by step.” The next step is an ambitious redecorating plan.
If you’ve not yet tried Sri Lankan food, expect a cuisine that is frequently spicy, as the restaurant’s name suggests. Sweet and sour flavors are often paired, and chili peppers can be combined with fruit or honey. The cuisine has some elements in common with India, Sri Lanka’s neighbor 40 miles to the north — biryani is served — but don’t expect a list of typical Indian dishes.
Although Sri Lankan food can be hot, Senaratne says, “We don’t have the overpowering spices of India.” Indeed, he imports Sri Lankan chilies and curry powder, rather than buying those stocked at local Indian groceries.
Consider ordering kottu, a stir-fry of meat, carrots, onions and greens with thin slices of flatbread mixed in, looking more like noodles turned deep yellow by spices. Kottu is a good introduction to the seasoning and forceful heat of Sri Lankan food, although SpicyZest could definitely go easier on the salt. The dish comes with your choice of a range of meats; mutton kottu ($11.50) is especially savory and especially good.
Fried rice and fried noodles both appear on the menu; the fried noodles are a mound of thin, angel-hair-like noodles stir fried with veggies and, again, your choice of protein (veggie $7, meats $8 to $14). An even simpler-sounding dish, rice and curry with veggies ($8), offers a good mash of split peas, a parsley salad and sliced, curried snake gourd, a tasty vegetable that looks like green bell peppers on the plate but at the farm looks truly wild — long, twisting, pointy-ended gourds dangling off trellises.
Another local specialty is deviled meat. In the United States, the word “deviled” got hijacked by eggs, but in Sri Lanka, deviled meat is fried until crisp and coated in a sauce that’s sweet, sour, spicy and sticky all at once. SpicyZest’s deviled chicken legs and thighs ($9) are one of the highlights of the menu, mixed with vegetables and served with rice.
Another specialty is lamprais, a special-occasion meal which arrives in a huge tinfoil ball. Peel back the foil and then peel back the wide banana leaves which form another layer of wrapping; inside is a mixture of rice, meat curry, a fish cake, a hard-boiled egg, eggplant curry and seeni sambol (sweet-hot caramelized onion relish). The price ranges from $13 to $16 depending on your choice from seven meats, ranging from chicken to mutton.
The many components of lamprais are traditionally made in advance, then rolled into banana leaves and heated for serving. SpicyZest staff are keen to make sure the lamprais is heated through, so if you’d like it in the oven a little longer, just ask.
There’s one more interesting thing to consider when you chow down on lamprais. The fish cake’s texture is a lot like a traditional northeastern American crab cake. That’s because Sri Lankan food was influenced heavily by the Dutch traders who exerted colonial rule over much of the island in the 17th and 18th centuries. Lamprais in particular is associated with descendants of the Dutch, and it’s a good example of the fact that, no matter how much today’s marketers tout “fusion food” as a cool new concept, cultural fusion is in fact an essential part of culinary history.
SpicyZest celebrates traditional fusions, and the newer sort too. The burger, for instance, comes with pan-fried veggies and a couple of tiny, menacing chili peppers ($6.50). And there’s an amusing “spicy pancake bomb” ($6.99) which, in crudest terms, is a burrito filled with home fries and shredded cheese. The truth might be a little more complicated, but the salty, spicy, cheesy treat is as good as it sounds.
Nasi goreng, an Indonesian fried rice staple with seafood and pineapple, is served in what the staff calls a Sri Lankan “version” ($11). On the side you’ll find a large pile of red chili flakes, ready to be stirred in by the daring diner.
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If SpicyZest has a weakness, it’s the restaurant’s tiny size. Four tables aren’t many, but the small staff means that even a party of four can slow the kitchen down. This former to-go counter’s bathroom is in the back. But that size has perks too, like unusually welcoming staff who are happy to, say, show customers pictures of Sri Lankan produce or bring out a surprise free beef roll.
Senaratne explains, “I wanted to do something little; that way I could keep up the quality and freshness.”
And it’s impossible to overstate that, for Dallas diners, the food here will be a journey of discovery. One Indian restaurant in Houston offers a few Sri Lankan dishes in its huge menu, but aside from that, the nearest full-service restaurants serving this cuisine are in Minneapolis. A lot of eateries in the Dallas area brag about offering a unique dining experience, but at SpicyZest, the bragging is true.
SpicyZest, 13920 Josey Lane, Farmers Branch. 469-629-9191. 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m Monday through Thursday and Sun; 11 a.m. to 9:45 p.m. Friday and Saturday.