They’re the size and shape of Hot Pockets, but the beef rolls Sandya De Silva and Chelaka Gunamuni serve at Kottu House (250 Broome Street; 646-781-9222) have little else in common with that frozen snack of your digestive nightmares. The filling — coarsely ground beef mixed with shredded vegetables and curry powder — blooms with an explosion of spice. The aromatic meat hash is encased in godamba roti, a pancake-like griddled flatbread that forms a texturally appealing shell around the beef when fried: at once shatteringly crisp and chewy. (Try finessing that with a microwave crisping sleeve.) At two for $5, the beef rolls anchor a list of “short eats,” crunchy bites that cost less than $10 and come with cups of sriracha hot sauce for dipping. Other winners include thinly coated fried calamari and golden french fries, both of which buzz with chile powder; and creamy salmon croquettes.
New Yorkers subsist on handheld and convenience foods — which might explain our love affair with food trucks and fast-casual concepts, as well as why cavernous upscale food courts are flourishing. We fold our pizza (the better to scarf it down) and take comfort in the knowledge that street-corner carts are stocked with wieners poaching in hot water for immediate consumption. More than a few of us would argue all night about which dive serves the best egg sandwich. And still, against that formidable landscape, Kottu House’s superlative takeaway stands out.
Not that you shouldn’t stick around, even if that means occasionally waiting, food in hand, for a seat at one of the storefront’s three tables. A statue of Buddha watches over the narrow room, with a video-projected Sri Lankan devil mask, glowing in a neon rainbow of color, to keep him company.
But you’ll spot the heart and soul of Kottu House plastered along its western wall, in the faces of Gunamuni’s family and friends that peer out from a mosaic of framed photos, and in the kitchen, where De Silva, 30-year-old Gunamuni’s mother, presides. The pair came to Staten Island fifteen years ago, settling in the Tompkinsville neighborhood, home to one of the largest Sri Lankan communities in the United States. They’d once lived on different continents, the son back home in Sri Lanka while Ma plied her trade in Southern Europe. Now a kitchen wall on the Lower East Side is all that separates them: Gunamuni takes orders up front while De Silva makes magic back at the burners.
They opened Kottu House on a well-trafficked stretch of Broome Street in March. To make the restaurant’s namesake dish, De Silva chops godamba roti into spongy squares and stir-fries them on a flat-top griddle. The round, pillowy flatbread is related to Malaysia’s roti canai, and its thin layers soak up flavors from chopped cabbage, shredded carrots, and thinly sliced leeks. You can choose from seven varieties in small or large portions whose prices range from $7 to $15. De Silva utilizes an array of proteins, from peppery seawater fish to supremely spicy “deviled beef” and something called the “Little Italy,” which melds crumbles of chicken sausage with homemade tomato sauce — a recipe she picked up while cooking in Milan.
Chicken and tofu, often bland on their own, draw on Sri Lankan black curry, a clove-spiked powder made from roasted spices that tugs with fire and savory nuance. The chef is at her best frying prawns until their shells are brittle, then adding coconut milk to the sauté for a subtle dose of creamy sweetness. For an extra dollar you may opt to top your kottu with a fried egg. Eat it with a branded Kottu House spork and witness this misguided invention’s true potential.
Sriracha’s not the only hot sauce on hand. De Silva cooks three sambals — deeply spiced, outrageously flavorful Sri Lankan condiments — from scratch. “Save some for breakfast the next morning if you can. Try it on toast,” Gunamuni instructs before handing over his favorite, lunu sambal: a mash of red chiles, salt, raw onion, and lime juice. Acidic and sharp, it’s the strongest of the bunch. Easier to love are the pol and minchi varieties, both fragrant and refreshing from minced coconut — the pol red from chiles, the minchi an inviting shade of sea foam thanks to mint and green chiles. All are worth ordering, especially for first-timers to the cuisine.
Gunamuni, tattooed and lithe, rules the dining room, coordinating orders with his mother in the kitchen. During lulls he can be found working on his laptop. “In Sri Lanka they have huts and hole-in-the-wall shops,” he says, but he’s determined to run a 21st-century establishment. Kottu House is one of only two restaurants in New York to accept payment via digital-wallet app Venmo. And I’d wager that Kottu House’s Sri Lankan contemporaries don’t serve pineapple cider. The restaurant also offers dark, malty Lion stout (a Sri Lankan brand) on tap.
Either beverage will help you pass the likely wait time and cushion the kitchen’s onslaught of seasoning. The latter may also be held at bay by dessert — a slightly stiff coffee flan, or watalappam, a gently smoky coconut-milk pudding made with jaggery (unrefined palm sugar) and cashew pieces and seasoned with cloves. Neither would win an award for presentation, served as they are in the small metal cups they were baked in, but like the rest of De Silva’s offerings, their homespun flavors are out of this world.
250 Broome Street, 646-781-9222
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 16, 2015