This has come up before. The emergence of two very distinct camps in Colombo’s Chinese food scene. On one side of the divide are the old Sri Lankan Chinese favorites. The bastions of hot butter cuttle fish, MSG-infused fried rice and sweet and sour – Flower Drum, Chinese Dragon, Chinese Park view etc. On the other side of the line are the new mainland eating houses – Min Han, Chafing Dishes, Fortune boat, The 17th lane Chuanr Stall. While both sides are covered by the blanket term Chinese they actually have very little in common.
Chinese dragon, Flower Drum etc essentially serve a subset of Sri Lankan-food influenced by southern (Cantonese) Chinese and American-Chinese food. While Min Han and company dish up generally northern Chinese staples – dumplings, steamed buns, hot-pot. Both takes on the cuisine of the middle kingdom can be very tasty. While the mainland eating houses are more authentic and able to draw from the deep culinary traditions of an ancient civlization, Sri Lankan Chinese food is a unique fusion with dishes well adapted to our island and the pallets of its people. However it must be noted that recently a lot of Sri Lankan Chinese stalwarts have let standards fall. The mainland restaurants, on the other hand, tend to be more consistent- perhaps because they serve a smaller, more demanding niche – Colombo’s expatriate Chinese population.
Somewhere near the head of the mainland charge, in terms of quality at least, is Lucky Star off Havelock road (opposite Han Gook Gwan, next door to Hercules tailors). Like most of the city’s mainland eateries it’s a pretty underground establishment- a solitary room in a house, a handful of tables, a large television perpetually tuned to Chinese State Television. Pretty much your standard Chinese fan guan (street level restaurant) but a brighter cleaner fan guan than say Min Han.
The couple who run it are also more welcoming and attentive than average. Many of Colombo’s mainland Chinese options feature somewhat unhelpful, mono-lingual staff but here they speak good English and seem eager to please. To go with the superior service they also have a superior menu with a selection of rather fancy crab and roast duck dishes (though you usually need to order ahead for these).
On our last visit we stuck to the much simpler fried tofu, soy-bean cold noodles, and some dumplings (enough for three, total bill Rs 1800 with a coke). Everything was tasty and pretty much as it would be in China. Even without the exclusively Chinese clientele and waiting staff you’d know it was a mainland restaurant from the quality of the tofu- just softer and silkier than locally-run restaurants can achieve. The dumplings were light, exploding with flavor and pleasantly un-oily while the cold noodles were subtle and savory. It’s a very different range of flavors to what you’d encounter in Sri Lakan-Chinese food. Not necessarily lacking in chili (many Sri Lankans believe authentic Chinese food to be un-spicy this is far from being the case) but often without the big flavors the pepper, the oyster sauce, star-anise, the strong taste of ginger you see in a Sri Lankan Chinese dishes. Instead you get more vinegar and garlic, the occasional dash of rice wine, the crunch of winter vegetables – raw carrots, picked radish and cabbage, and more noodles than rice. This definitely isn’t the take-away from our child hoods but it’s tasty all the same- fully worth seeking out.
Given the pitch perfect execution of the simple dishes and the calm-competence exuded by the staff we have faith in the posher dishes too. So for an inexpensive meal, or even a bit of splashing out head to Lucky Star. As a bonus any visit features free traveling without moving. Really, go inside at 7pm on your average weekday and there is simply no way you can tell you aren’t in China.