5448 Victoria Ave, Niagara Falls
Gobi Nada knows there’s no limit to dining options in Toronto when the craving or curiosity about Sri Lankan cuisine strikes.
But beyond the big city’s borders? He knows the opposite is true.
That’s why Gobi, originally from Jaffna, Sri Lanka, has taken it upon himself to raise the profile of their birth nation’s food by opening Kothu Labs in Niagara Falls.
The restaurant, in operation for just a few weeks, has already become a calling card for Sri Lankan and South Asian visitors to the Cataract City.
Just as much, it’s beckoning locals who’ve never heard of a string hopper or the restaurant’s namesake, kothu, a popular Sri Lankan street food similar to a stir fry that features a combination of vegetables, meat, egg, and typically roti, rice or noodles.
“Kothu is like a burger and fries in North America,” Nada said. “Kothu Labs brings the street food experience into the diner and offers a different experience.”
It’s one rooted as much in teaching people about kothu’s place of origin as it is in transforming street food into restaurant fare. Few beyond Toronto have been exposed to Sri Lankan food, so it often gets confused with that of its Indian neighbours, Nada explained.
There are similarities, he noted. Both are rich in flavour. But there are important differences, too.
Sri Lankan curries, for example, are not as thick as their Indian counterparts. Different spices are used in both, too. And then there are dishes so intrinsic to Sri Lanka, like those thin red rice noodles known as string hoppers, and kothu, that there simply is no comparison to another country’s fare.
Even the Kothu Labs dining room, which boasts two floors and an outdoor patio, channels Sri Lanka with greenery throughout and Tamil music playing on the sound system.
Upstairs, diners can pop in for drinks and a quick bite. Downstairs, parties of six or eight people can gather around a live cooking station and enjoy a special menu beyond kothu.
The patio also features a live kothu station when weather allows.
Every order of kothu, which means “to chop” in Tamil, starts with fresh vegetables at Kothu Labs. The standards are onion, chilis, carrots, leeks and cabbage, though those can be customized.
They’re cooked on a flat-top grill in an open kitchen and mixed with a protein of choice, including chicken, beef, lamb, fish, shrimp, mixed seafood, even decadent lobster.
Everything is served with a carb base: rice, string hoppers, or roti for a traditional experience.
Diners tie it all together with a choice of sauce. The Jaffna, made with curry powder from its namesake city, is popular but Kothu Labs also offers Kerala, jerk, tandoori, Thai and butter chicken options.
True to the “Labs” in its name, Kothu Labs experiments with options beyond the traditional by offering bases, including pasta, fries or chickpeas, proteins, and sauces beyond the usual suspects.
Nada offers this suggestion for the purists and first-timers, however:
“We would always recommend the authentic kothu, which is kothu roti finished with Jaffna sauce. We always recommend customers have that first before they start experimenting with other options.”
Plans are in the works to eventually offer classic Sri Lankan breakfasts starring dosas, idli, and appam, a rice flour pancake.
Whatever the choice, there’s something for every diner, whether they’re vegan, eat a gluten-free diet or are full-fledged omnivores.
And visitors can photograph their meal against the selfie wall to share with their friends on social media. Don’t forget to tag #gotmykothufix.
Kothu Labs, which has another location in Perth Ontario, features other traditional fare, including savoury fritters called vadai, and sambar, a vegetable stew.
There’s also playful Jaffna poutine, fusing a Canadian staple with Sri Lankan inspiration, roti sandwiches, and even chicken wings, which can be doused with the same sauces as the kothu.
Delivery through DoorDash, Uber Eats and Skip the Dishes is an option for those who prefer to eat at home.
No matter where they’re enjoyed, the dishes on the Kothu Labs menu are rooted in a love for food and for a place that Gobi left when he was 12 amid Sri Lanka’s 26 years of civil war.
“I remember my first trip back to Sri Lanka. All I did was eat there,” Nada said. “Food, just like in any part of the world, is a common ground.”
Kothu Labs is currently open for takeout and reservations only until mid-December.
Author: Tiffany Mayer
Follow her on Instagram: @eatingniagara