If you live in Los Angeles and love food, chances are you’ve already had a ‘pop-up’ restaurant experience. Whether you’ve sampled squid carbonara with pancetta at LudoBites 4.0 in downtown LA, or any of the monthly Hatchi dinners at the Breadbar in Century City, you know you love these limited pop-up engagements. It’s a wonderful way for adventurous LA diners to taste new flavors while chefs get an opportunity to share their creativity and vision. I’m a big supporter of pop-up events and always love to see what local chefs have in store for us. Every pop-up dining experience has been amazing for me, but with famous chefs preparing deconstructed, liquified, powdered and all around reinterpreted food at most of these events, a new type of pop-up called Street Food Mondays comes as a breath of fresh air. Bill Esparza from Street Gourmet LA has teamed up with Chef Evan Kleiman of Angeli Caffe to bring back, for some, and introduce, to others, the wonderful culture of street food.
When we travel to foreign countries, we don’t go to 3-Michelin starred restaurants to find out about their culture. We venture into their local markets to take in the sights and aromas of the local bounties, and we taste the elements that fuel their energy by sampling local delicacies. Street food is the very essence of culture, honoring food that nourishes many generations and defines who we are today. Simple but hearty and comforting food that sings to the soul often evokes powerful childhood memories and comes with interesting life stores. Street Food Mondays opens up these magical realms to us and brings us a step closer to understanding the world around us.
What better liaison to serve as our guide than Bill Esparza who is an avid seeker and connoisseur of international street food. Street Food Mondays debuted last month with Ricky’s fish tacos, attracting a line of customers that spilled out onto the sidewalk. The second in its series occurred this past Monday to feature Priyani Dissanayake’s Sri Lankan Hopper Night. Priyani used to serve authentic Sri Lankan fare out of a restaurant called Priyan’s Ceylon Café in Northridge which has unfortunately recently closed. It was a special treat to be able to enjoy her famous hoppers for this one-night only event.
Hoppers, or appam in the native language, are thin Sri Lankan pancakes made from a fermented batter of rice flour, coconut milk and palm toddy, and most often eaten for breakfast or dinner. The batter is fried in a small wok-like pan called an appachatti with a little bit of oil to give it its characteristic bowl-like shape. Plain hoppers were served with sime sambal, a chile based condiment.
Egg hoppers are these same hoppers but with an egg broken into the pancake as it cooks in the pan. We ordered our egg hoppers with a wonderful mutton curry cooked on the bone with a rich and seductive blend of spices.
Although it has the same name, string hoppers, or idiyappam, are different from regular hoppers. String hoppers are made from steamed rice flour and curled into flat spirals, similar to Vietnamese bun. Our dish came with a light and aromatic coconut sambal made with grated coconuts and chile spices. For the side we chose chicken curry that was fully infused with a perfect blend of flavorful exotic spices. As much as India is famous for their curries, Sri Lanka is just as famous for their diversity of distinct spices.
Small round fish croquettes filled with moist fish flakes and elongated beef croquettes stuffed with a creamy minced beef filling served as satisfying bite-sized eats with the spicy chile sauce.
Sri Lankan biryanis are known for being spicier than Indian biryanis, but Priyani kept the heat level under control for her Los Angeles diners at this event. Her chicken biryani was made with chicken curry, hard-boiled eggs, cashews and an unforgettable smokey eggplant curry.
Our satisfying meal concluded with a Sri Lankan dessert called wattalapan, a steamed coconut custard made with coconut milk, eggs, jaggery and cashew nuts and seasoned with cardamom, cloves and nutmeg. Jaggery is unrefined sugar made from sugarcane and palm tree, and used widely for both sweet and savory dishes in Sri Lanka. Due to the use of jaggery instead of refined sugar, the custard had a dark, earthy sweetness that reminded me of pure molasses.
Thanks to Bill Esparza and this wonderful pop-up event, I was able to get a good introduction into Sri Lankan street food. Despite the fact that Los Angeles is a melting pot of different cultures, authentic Sri Lankan food is hard to come by, and it’s unfortunate that Priyani’s restaurant closed down. More Angelenos are showing interest in good food and making an effort to seek delectable eats these days- it’s my hope that they will support authentic street food and mom-and-pop stores just as much as celebrity chef restaurants. Street food is where the heart is, and Street Food Mondays are where the food is. Street Food Mondays at Angeli Caffe by Street Gourmet LA, which not only introduces new flavors to our community, but also embraces cultural diversity and the very essence of ‘soul’, is the most welcomed pop-up act to hit our food community today.
7274 Melrose Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90046
Street Gourmet LA website:
Priyani’s Ceylon Fusion available for catering. Contact Priyani at Priyanidisa@yahoo.com
Random trivia: Did you know that raw cashews are caustic due to its outer lining that contains urushiol, the same chemical found in poison ivy? Exposure to urushiol can cause a severe skin reaction, which is why all cashews available for consumption are steamed or roasted.