In a nondescript strip mall in Farmers Branch, a suburb of Dallas, sits the state of Texas’ first Sri Lankan restaurant, Spicy Zest. It is a very small restaurant with bright walls, festive wall hangings and just a few tables. It feels almost as if you are eating in someone's home due to the hospitality and cozy feel of the restaurant. Sri Lanka is a picturesque island nation in the Indian Ocean 40 miles from India, known for very flavorful and spicy dishes unfamiliar to most Americans.
Chef-owner of Spicy Zest Nimidu Senaratne is a Sri Lanka native with a very interesting background. Chef Senaratne’s uncle owned small resorts and he grew up working in these resorts. He received a diploma in Hotel Management from the Swiss Lanka Hotel School in Sri Lanka, and subsequently, obtained an advanced diploma in Food & Beverages conducted by City & Guilds Institute in the UK. Senartne then left Sri Lanka at the age of 22 to move to Singapore and work at Sentosa Island Resort and to study hospitality. He was responsible for very large banquet catering there as well as studying for the Advanced Diploma in Hotel Management at Bristol Business School. His future wife Chamari Walliwalagedra, also from Sri Lanka, was studying in the US and would eventually get her PhD in Chemistry from Cleveland State University. Chef Senaratne moved to Cleveland to further his education and received a degree in Food and Restaurant Management. While studying for his degree, he also worked extensively for the Hilton and Marriott corporations.
Chef Senaratne moved to Dallas in 2013 and he and his wife started Spicy Zest first as a home based catering business, a passion-project he had always wanted to pursue. As the business grew, he then opened his own restaurant in 2016 in Farmers Branch, first as a take-out only spot without any tables. Senaratne concentrated on Sri Lankan traditional specialities and his own “fusion” takes on the food from his childhood. He uses imported spices from Sri Lanka, no preservatives, fresh ingredients and antibiotic free meat. Word of mouth and local press spread the word of the tastiness of the food, and in 2016 he added tables to become a full sit down restaurant. While Senaratne struggled to pay the overhead the first year, he refused to compromise on quality of ingredients to make his delectable and unique food.
The first several years Senaratne struggled to make Spicy Zest a successful venture. He was working long hours seven days a week and barely getting by. Staffing was a big issue and it was often hard to cover the bills. Despite his struggles, Chef Senaratne was committed to his vision of bringing Sri Lankan food to the United States while maintaining his incredibly high standards for his food. Over time, his staffing issues have improved and he has hired another Sous Chef from his native Sri Lanka. More recently, he also has added business lunch catering that has been very popular and helped the business to become more profitable. Chef Senaratne is not afraid of criticism and welcomes opinions and ideas to help make his business more successful. His extensive hospitality background makes him a chef who is able to look at both the culinary and the business part of owning a restaurant.
When you walk in to Spicy Zest you feel very welcome right away. Frequently, either Chef Senaratne or his wife will walk you through the menu and the types of Sri Lankan dishes to be sampled. On a very hot Tuesday night in August, we were one a few tables occupied but there were many others coming in for take out. We started with fresh baked buns out of the oven stuffed with Seeni Sambol (onion confit) and others stuffed with fish. Don’t forget to try the egg hoppers if available as a starter. This staple of Sri Lankan cuisine is like a savory thin crepe with a soft boiled egg in the middle. It is served with condiments on the side and is eaten like a taco. The mutton Kottu is a favorite of mine. It is a traditional Sri Lankan dish of tender cubed mutton, Sri Lankan roti flatbread, carrots, onions, eggs and a curry spice blend. It is savory and spicy comfort dish. The lamprais is a generous mixture of rice, vegetables and meat rolled into a banana leaf and steamed. We opted for the pork lamprais and it was outstanding and filling. Also very popular is the deviled beef, which is seasoned & marinated for 48 hours then pan fried till crispy with vegetables and a sauce that is spicy, tangy and a little sweet.
Due to his time in Singapore, Chef Senaratne also offers the Indonesian fried rice with seafood and pineapple called Nasi Goreng. You must leave room for a little Watalapppan at the end of your meal. Watalappan is a rich Sri Lankan flan-like custard with notes of cardamom and nutmeg. If you can’t decide on what to try, then I recommend the weekend buffet which has an array of menu items to tempt your palate.
Senartne’s hope is to expand to a larger location in the near future. His goal is to have as many people as possible experience the incredible flavors of his native cuisine. WIth the amazing and unique flavor profile of his dishes, hopefully more will be able to discover the hospitality that Sri Lankan cuisine and Chef Senaratne has to offer.
Location: 13920 Josey Ln suite 107, Farmers Branch, TX 75234
Hours: Tue/Wed/Fri/Sat 11:00 AM - 9:45 PM,
Sunday 11:00 AM - 6:30 PM
Closed: Mon & Thur
About the Author:
Liam Conner is a junior in high school at Highland Park High School in Dallas, Texas. He has a lifelong love of learning about other cultures, especially exploring cultures by trying their native food and learning about their food customs. Liam went to Taiwan in March of 2019 on a cultural exchange and made a podcast about the food of the Night Markets. Liam plans on majoring in International Studies in college with a concentration in South & Southeast Asia and continuing to try any new ethnic restaurant he can find along his way.