KJ's Curry Bowl occupies the former Cilantro space in a strip mall across from Memorial High School. The restaurant's fare consists mostly of nachos, burritos, quesadillas, stir-fries, fajita bowls and milkshakes. It's a veritable wish list of things you might want if you were, say, a stoned American student.
But at the back of the menu, where there is a short list of curries, KJ's reveals itself to be a Sri Lankan establishment -- one of only a handful in the United States.
Sri Lanka is an island off the southern coast of the Indian subcontinent, once called Ceylon. The country spent 26 years in a civil war between the Tamil minority and Sinhalese majority that finally ended in 2009. During the turmoil, thousands of the island's Sinhalese immigrated to the United States and settled on Staten Island and in Los Angeles. Tamils created a large expat community in Toronto.
Sri Lankan cuisine shares many similarities with Indian food, but the island's position within the Indian Ocean spice trading route, as well as its ancient Buddhist culture, has inflected the food with a complex Southeast Asian flair. There are also British, Portuguese and Dutch influences from the country's colonialist days.
To know the vibrant food of southern India and Sri Lanka is to obsess. There are crepe-like pancakes called appa, made with coconut milk and rice sporting a fried egg inside; innumerable rich coconut curries; a multitude of fragrant pickles and chutneys; flat breads; fried snack-like potato croquettes; hearty lentil stews; sweet and sour seafood dishes; heady teas and sweet pudding-like desserts. Various combinations of the many dishes can be served on a banana leaf or in small metal dishes as thali -- creating in one meal a balanced kaleidoscope of colors, flavors, textures, temperatures and spicing.
The atmosphere at KJ's is cheerful. The walls are painted in saturated saffron colors, and light streams in through the floor-to-ceiling windows.
Music seems to be exclusively pan flute versions of Top 40 songs: Either revel in an orchestral version of "Must Have Been Love," as well as most of Bette Midler's songbook, or suffer. Once you order, and the seductive smell of spices cooking wafts to your table, "Total Eclipse of the Heart" loudly reimagined by Zamfir won't matter; maybe it even works.
There are chicken, pork and beef satays in the appetizer section of the menu, and they arrive as tender meats skewered on bamboo sticks accompanied by a Sriracha-like hot sauce and a sweet peanut sauce. The meat is tender and lightly charred, and the sauces complement each other well.
There are five curries on the menu: chicken and potato, chicken, potato, dahl and green bean. Rich with coconut milk and redolent with spice and curry leaves, they each have depth and personality. Some, like the chicken curry, have pandan leaves --also used in Thai and Singaporean cooking.
Pandan leaves are from a type of palm-like shrub and taste a bit like pine and citrus, simultaneously nutty and fragrant. The long leaves are often called Asia's version of vanilla, and are typically paired with coconut.
The chicken in the curry is impossibly tender, part of the velvety texture and aromatic complexity of the dish.
The dahl curry has depth of flavor, rich and earthy. The green bean is a tomato-based curry that brings out the vegetal sweetness of the beans. All arrive with either white or brown rice.
Be aware that Sri Lankan cuisine is some of the spiciest in the world, and it's worth asking for "medium" or even "mild" before you ruin your food with misplaced bravado. Here, one of the excellent mango lassis might not be enough to save you.
If you return, the chef seems to take things up a notch on his own accord once he's seen that you've survived the heat on the first visit.
Every Saturday the kitchen runs a different classic Sri Lankan special and posts what the dish will be on the restaurant's website.
On my first visit, the special was chicken kottu, chopped rice with meat, egg, onions, carrots and more -- a sort of fried rice -- that is made by chopping quickly and forcefully with two metal blades. The sound from the kitchen is explosive. A blend of what tastes like garam masala and sour citrus with small tender caramelized chicken pieces, it's the kind of road-food classic people will drive miles to experience in a correct version.
Likewise the well-made coconut roti, served on my next visit. Sri Lankan rotis, essentially thick flour pancakes, are less greasy than their northern counterparts. Here they are perfectly chewy inside with a crispy, toothy exterior that has bits of charred coconut and scallion. Roti is served with chicken curry and sweet and spicy red onion chutney.
Cool down from any of KJ's spectacular curries with a thick, brown coconut pudding studded with whole cardamom pods. It is wonderfully anesthetizing.
Visit KJ's on the weekend and ignore the huge menu except for the nearly secret Sinhalese Sri Lankan dishes, and you'll be transported to one of the world's greatest (and, in the U.S., rarest) cuisines, expertly prepared, in the most unlikely location.