New Asha Cafe
It's always weird when you decide to try a new-to-you cuisine and restaurant in a neighborhood you rarely frequent, and then days later the New York Times runs a review of the same place. Actually, they wrote up New Sunshine, which seemed like the more formal sit down Staten Island Sri Lankan, while I opted at the last minute for the hole in the wall contender New Asha. But I easily couldve gone to either.
I've been meaning to try one of these restaurants for what feels like eons, and even had an acquaintance that used to live nearby. But I'd only do the S.I. trek evenings when he threw parties and these arent late night establishments. On this occasion we were forced into S.I. during Fourth of July weekend to patronize the only NYC Petsmart. Supposedly they carry this smart litter box for diabetic cats (they pee insane amounts and now our two other normal insulin producing cats wont use the boxes and are totally messing the house up). Despite being the most suburban borough, S.I. is still futilely and impossibly NYC, so accordingly they didnt have the litter box in stock or have any knowledge of its existence. Fine, at least I could get my Sri Lankan initiation.
All I knew was that it must be similar to Indian (most likely southern Indian) food with perhaps some tropical influences. This is true; there is overt use of cinnamon, clove, coconut milk and pandan which leans kind of Indonesian/Malaysian. The food is spicy, but definitely not hot. As a condiment, they provide a carrot pickle interspersed with birds eye chilis, but even that was more pungent than incendiary. But then there are items that completely unique like hoppers, which are little crepe baskets made from rice flour. A sunny side up egg lay in the bottom of each hopper on display behind glass, shelved over the steam table. I'm honestly not sure if youre supposed to put food inside and treat the pancake like a bowl, or break pieces off like a papadum.
We opted for rice topped with sides of the cooks choosing. I'm not used to putting myself in others hands, but its enlightening to see how they plate. Vegetables dominated, but we were also given separate small dishes of chicken and mutton curry, which were boney and oily, but not disconcertingly so. For starters we had "lentil cookies" and curried vegetable pastries, kind of like samosas, but rectangular. We were given generous portions of a dal-like lentil puree, soft-cooked sweetish green beans and a creamy pale yellow curry that I couldnt figure out, but really loved. At first I thought the main ingredient was potato, but the texture was too fibrous. Then I thought it might a root like yucca. But after asking, it turned out to be jackfruit, which I've had in Indonesian curry before, but it wasn't like this. Perhaps its the difference between canned and fresh?
Jackfruit one of those mysteries where you cant find it in NYC (like mangosteen, which I know is illegal, and kaffir lime leaves, rambutans and galangal, which are not) but is freely available in Canada. It's not like their climate is more conducive to tropical produce, it must have something to do with import regulations.
New Asha isnt big on atmosphere, there are four tables for dining in the front of what is essentially a to go operation, but its not creepy like eating inside a Chinese take out joint. And you could get Sri Lankan beer at the adjoining grocery store if you wanted to spruce up your meal.
New Asha Cafe * 322 Victory Blvd., Staten Island, NY