Rupee Bar Gives Seattle a Rare Entry Point to Sri Lankan Flavors

Latin-toned Manolin spun off this spicy den of cocktails and bar snacks in Ballard. Even more unexpected—it's crazy good.

By Allecia Vermillion April 8, 2020 Published in the April/May 2020 issue of Seattle Met

Bhelpuri, cocktail, Kerala fried chicken, and black cod curry.

Image: Amber Fouts

Boneless fried chicken, near blasphemy in the American South, is the triumph of Rupee Bar, where juicy parcels of thigh meat bear about as much resemblance to kiddie nuggets as a ghost pepper does to slices of sweet red bell. Even in low light, the chicken’s craggy surface blazes an unexpected auburn, a hue acquired with a custom blend of Sri Lankan chilies. More chili powder, dry roasted and dusted on top, amplifies its flavors from undercurrent to overture, a dish as rich and bold as the peacock-blue room where I first devoured them, perched on a brass and leather barstool.

Shortly after the owners of Manolin promoted Liz Kenyon to head chef in 2019, they clued her into another new development: Plans for a cocktail bar in Ballard with snacks centered on the flavors of Sri Lanka, the island nation across from the southeast flank of the Indian subcontinent. Her initial response was more curse words than thoughts about curry techniques. Ambitious chefs don’t usually fist pump at the term “bar snacks,” and Kenyon’s focus was lasered on Manolin’s delicate Latin landscape of ceviche and plantains and black rice with squid. What did she know about this other seafood-facing food culture?

I underestimated Manolin when it opened in 2014 with a Latin-Northwest menu that quietly became one of Seattle’s most reliable treasures. Don’t underestimate Kenyon, a woman who answered the challenge of Rupee Bar by immersing herself in this unfamiliar, but vibrant foodway—a millennia-old crossroads for the spice trade, steeped in coconut—and extracted her own polished take. Her succinct menu is perhaps as much South Indian as Sri Lankan (at their closest point, a mere 30 miles of water separate the two) and a gleaming beacon of layered spices in a dining landscape increasingly crowded with “safe” and “pretty good.”

Fish curry, sambol, naan, and fried chicken fill the walnut bar top; chef Liz Kenyon.

Image: Amber Fouts

Can fish curry be ambitious bar food? Sure, if you fuse coconut, turmeric, and lemongrass until it tastes like a sophisticated beach party then top it with a filet of perfectly cooked Neah Bay cod, crackling skin side up. If Sri Lanka’s signature coconut-forward intensity is a brass band, Rupee Bar’s version is a string quartet, crowned with a garland of photogenic herbs. Curries arranged like tableaux, a total absence of rice, the quarter of roasted cauliflower sprinkled with currants—nothing here resembles a dish you’d actually find in Sri Lanka. Kenyon’s as quick to acknowledge this as my friends with deep connections to South Indian food, who often come away from a meal here wishing the kitchen had gone full-throttle face burn on flavors. (Though even they agree, that chicken is on point.)

Before it sprang to life in a narrow slot of a fir-timbered old Ballard building, Rupee Bar lived mostly in the mind of co-owner Rachel Johnson. Decades had passed since she traveled throughout Sri Lanka, but its flavors stayed with her. “We kind of talked ourselves out of it,” says Joe Sundberg, Johnson’s partner both in life and in bar endeavors. They, along with third partner Patrick Thalasinos, had reservations about representing a culture where they claim no heritage. But other ideas, other food, didn’t excite them like this. And (weirdly, regrettably) nobody in Seattle was cooking Sri Lankan. Not in stylized rooms where Swedish light fixtures illuminate walnut casework and a ribbon of tweezered mustard seeds garnishes the pumpkin curry (Kenyon admits to trolling Instagram and sending screen shots to cooks when she spots crooked ones). Even modern Indian food is surprisingly scant in this town.

Maybe that’s why this minuscule deep-blue drinking den is crowded even in the earliest evening hours, or on the rainiest of Tuesdays (petite tables are fixed to the ground, meaning zero flexibility for parties larger than four). Thank god for Olaf’s, the affable dive two doors down that’s both a de facto waiting room and relic of a bygone Seattle—this address used to be the Copper Gate, an aquavit-slinging tavern known for its vintage photos of bare-bosomed women and a doorway shaped like some anatomically correct lady business. Now the spiciest thing happening on this Ballard block is Kenyon’s collection of custom curry blends.


Dramatic drinks at Rupee Bar.

Image: Amber Fouts

If you’re going to transplant street snacks out of their natural habitat, you might as well put them in close proximity to cocktails. And wow, the drink menu at Rupee Bar is the smartest party I’ve been to in a while. Excitement over the food can overshadow a cocktail program unlike anything else in the city, even though Sri Lankan spices crossed with beach vibes should be a game changer for anyone who loves tiki. 

Joe Sundberg and Patrick Thalasinos, the bar program masterminds, often embrace kitchen leftovers, like tamarind chutney. Sundberg doesn’t mind saying he wants you to order a cocktail. The wine list is small (“and it’s not cheap wine!”), the beer options even more limited. Any concerns about being nudged, algorithm style, into a prescribed behavior hopefully evaporate with a sip of the King Coconut, which resembles an old fashioned that just got back from a Jimmy Buffett concert, or a gin and tonic that conjures Christmas on a beach.

Rupee Bar also steps into a weird Seattle schism—our tech community draws a significant South Asian population, but hasn’t prompted a comparably sized wave of South Asian restaurants. Which means natives grateful for Kenyon’s take on the mutton roll, Sri Lanka’s national dish, might sit next to a four-top unsure what mutton even is. Walking through the room, Kenyon has heard everything from “I think it’s cow leg” to “sheep mixed with goat.” Her version encases a stewy mix of potato and ground mature sheep in a rice paper wrapper, rather than the traditional crepe, to batter and fry—nobody’s mom’s recipe, but it delivers a crunch the R&D team at Taco Bell would envy. Like many dishes at Rupee Bar, the accompanying sauce, a tomato sambol, is every bit as exciting as the main event.

When Kenyon received her Sri Lankan marching orders, she spent weeks traveling the island, which is slightly larger than West Virginia. She staged in London, which has a legitimate Sri Lankan restaurant scene, at buzzy places like Hoppers. She ate and traveled and ate some more. “I still go home every night and flip through books.” 

 Rupee Bar’s vivid (and petite) interior.

Image: Amber Fouts

And she’s unafraid to tweak. Kenyon broke convention and added yogurt to her bhelpuri, giving unfamiliar heft to an essential savory-crunchy snack genre; it still delivers the essential sensation that a blizzard of herbs and spicy puffed rice just spontaneously swept through your mouth. Her biggest learning curve, and the menu’s biggest geographic concession, both involve Rupee Bar’s tandoor grill. Imagine if bubble wrap were made of ethereal flatbread, then smeared with ghee until the butter aromas were so strong you might wonder if there were a movie theater down the street. That’s Kenyon’s naan, tweaked and troubleshot into a memorable companion for the menu’s four-ish curries, but decidedly a north Indian staple. South Indian dosas require more griddle space than Rupee Bar’s tiny kitchen could muster. Kenyon’s voice is thick with regret when she talks about hoppers and kottu roti, two dishes most likely to inspire homesickness in Sri Lankan expats, also not feasible in the tiny kitchen. “That’s something I want to get up and rolling by the summer,” she says. “I think it’s really important.” 

Like I said, she’s ambitious.

Filed under
Show Comments