The first time I met Dila was about ten years ago when he was working at the restaurant Chamonix on Recreo. He was a confident, outgoing guy with a toothy grin and an impressive knowledge of traditional fine French cuisine.
I liked Dila right from the start. I liked him even when he beat me at 9-ball on the roof of the old gone but sadly missed bar, Manolo’s. I liked the Asian touches he brought to Chamonix. I was thrilled when he told me he was opening his own place, Dila’s, on Salida a Celaya and bringing Sri Lankan cuisine to our town.
Then about five years ago, Dila’s, the restaurant, closed and Dila, the chef and owner, disappeared. I mean totally disappeared.
I heard Dila might be catering in Celaya or teaching hospitality in Leon or working as a hotel chef in Qatar or opening a restaurant in Toronto or had moved back to his native Sri Lanka. I’m still not exactly sure where he was but the good news is he’s not in any of those places anymore, he’s back in town and cooking again.
“I had only returned to San Miguel to sell a liquor licence I owned”, Dila (full name Dilawan Don Madawala) told me, “and the market presented me with this great opportunity.”
The market is Mercado Sano, the home of a little food court on the second floor, with five different stalls offering a range of cuisines.
“The quarters are a bit tight”, said Dila, “but everything I needed was here without me needing a lot of capital.”
Though there might be as many Sri Lankans working in the world’s kitchens as there are Mexicans, Sri Lankan cuisine remains a bit of a mystery.
“It is a bit of an unknown”, said Dila, “due mostly to the fact that thirty years of civil war kept any visitors away from the country.”
“The influences were mainly from Indonesia, Thailand and southern India but the colonists…the English, the Portuguese and the Dutch…also played a part in shaping it.”
“One thing that’s important is, though there are obvious similarities, it is still quite different from Indian food. The Sri Lankan kitchen produces very sophisticated, intricate dishes with many unique ingredients.”
There are about 25 different mains on Dila’s menu, including curries, stir fried noodle and rice dishes with a lot of those unique ingredients.
Last time I was there salmon was one of two fishes of the day and Dila cooked it perfectly, crispy on the skin and incredibly moist in the middle.
He served it with a black curry done by roasting yellow curry ingredients such as cumin, coriander, cardamon and cinnamon and intensifying their flavors. Though called black curry, it is actually a dark, golden brown
Good curries shouldn’t overpower the star attraction on the plate. This was a very good curry.
One of the advantages of being small is that Dila makes everything to order. No sauces sit on a steam table or bubble away in giant pots.
“All food is better when it’s cooked a la minute”, he said.
The freshness also comes through in the vegetables.
“I buy everything I can from Rancho Trinidad. They’re the only ones in town I know of that are really certified organic”, said Dila.
The second thing we ordered the last time I was there (and never go to Dila’s alone so you can share at least two dishes) was a baby squid noodle dish that included red cabbage, okra, lemongrass, asparagus, ginger and green papaya.
The noodles had exactly the right amount of bite. The flavors were just right and testament to, that no matter what you order, you can request the spicing everything from sizzling hot to icy cool.
When I left I had a smile of satisfaction on my face. Something that Dilshan Don Madawala seems to have permanently. And I think I know why. Almost ever day he eats at Dila’s.
Please don’t let him disappear again.
Dila’s is located at Mercado Sano, Ancha de San Antonio 31, in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. They are open daily from Noon to 7:00 pm.