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Eating Club: Staten Island Ferry To Little Sri Lanka

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For many, the Staten Island ferry is not so much a form of transportation but rather a free, fail-safe way to entertain out-of-town guests: hop aboard, point out the Statue of Liberty, and wait in the Staten Island ferry terminal for the next boat back to Manhattan. But Staten Island is not merely a turn-around point nor an imagined place--a netherland--where Hans van den Broek plays cricket in Joseph O'Neill's Netherland. In fact, among other groups, Staten Island is home to more than 1/3 of New York's Sri Lankan population. Interesting note: while there are ethnic clashes in the mother country, Tamils and Sinhalese are at peace in Staten Island's Sri Lankan enclave (at least according to a somewhat dated City Limits article).

This month, the MTA Dining Car--a monthly eating club devoted to outer borough trekking--headed to Staten Island. The destination: Sanrasa's $11 Sunday buffet in Tompkinsville (aka Little Sri Lanka), just a 10-minute walk from the ferry terminal on Staten Island.

We gazed out of the rain-slickened ferry window, searching for the Manhattan skyline. It was the kind of gloomy afternoon in which one realizes: winter is nearly upon us once more. And yet, we knew the meal to come would warm our hearts and sinuses with hot chilis and fiery curries, chasing away the onslaught of seasonal despair.

The view from the ferry's bow: in the distance, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge; in the foreground, what appears to be the kind of kiddy gate that one might use on a staircase.

Bay Street en route to Tompkinsville.

There's something vaguely Soviet about Staten Island.

On the exterior of the Cargo Cafe, thanks to the handywork of the local Budos Band, a pirate fights a fire-breathing dragon beneath a "Starry Night"-inspired sky. Previously, paintjobs by artist Scott LoBaido have included scenes of King Kong and giant parakeets with humans dangling out of their mouths. For the Cargo Cafe's interior, self-described "Creative Patriot" LoBaido once painted a portrait of Rudy Giuliani as a Roman soldier atop a rearing stallion, raising a billowing American flag with the flagpole doing double duty as a spear--which Giuliani uses to slay a demon/terrorist in the wreckage of what appears to be the Twin Towers.

Just up the street: a more conceptual painting, which the Cargo Cafe's manager thought to be a LoBaido as well.

One house still featured Halloween decorations. (Yes, that's a toy puppy with a knife in its skull.)

At long last! The Sanrasa buffet spread. Earthenware pots are to Sri Lankan food what the slow cooker is to flyover state American food: a sign of home cooking.

For the dhal, the lentils are simmered in coconut milk along with turmeric, cumin seed, red chili, and clove. Sanrasa owner Sanjay Handapangoda pan-roasts the spices himself.

Bitter gourd ("karvilla" in Sinhalese) is sliced, fried, and tossed with raw red onion, vinegar, mustard seed, and green chilis for a multilayered sweet and tangy flavor. If you assume Sri Lankan food to be a variant of Indian food, this dish will convince you otherwise.

The implicit question of the buffet is: how to stop? Returning to the buffet line "just for dessert" (see mango mousse in lower-right corner), one might then look down to see a full plate of chicken curry, yellow rice, dhal, pineapple chutney, bitter gourd, and coconut sambol (an all-purpose sweet and spicy condiment of grated coconut, chili, and lemon juice).

And yet: somehow we stopped eating, boarded the ferry, and watched Staten Island grow distant from the aft-end of the boat.

In the end, the sun came out just in time for it to set. Even if you live in New York, in moments like these, you're allowed to take photos with a tourist's unselfconscious sense of awe.

-Kiera Feldman

Anatomy of a Sri Lankan buffet plate (clockwise from the papadum): leeks, dhal, eggplant, chicken curry, potato, bitter gourd, coconut sambol, goat curry, and kingfish curry; mango and pineapple chutney, yellow rice (center).