7918 El Cajon Boulevard, La Mesa
Why would a one-time Nepal trekker ever want to eat Nepalese food again? Is it masochism — or is it just that Nepal casts such a powerful spell? You just know there must be better food there than the austere vegan fare of the high-country Sherpa inns or the fake-Western restaurant “treats” of Kathmandu. So before I talk about the new Himalayan Cuisine restaurant, I need to talk about Nepal, where the food and culture are not just extensions of India’s, but a different and literally higher world.
There is no region more stunning than the high country of Nepal — not even the highlands of Guatemala, Colombia, and Ecuador, although those come close, and our own Grand Tetons are a worthy contestant in the global beauty contest — and the inner beauty of the people rivals the heart-stopping mountain scenery. Hindus and Buddhists, broken into scores of tribal and ethnic groups who share Nepali as a common trade language, actually get along. Nepalese Buddhists respect Hinduism as the root of Buddhism, and many Hindus regard Gautama — a Hindu-born Nepalese prince — as the tenth incarnation of the god Vishnu, the preserver of life. Even the recent Maoist rebellion against the corrupt monarchy never broke down into tribal warfare (although the Maoists threatened some temples on general principles). An earlier, wiser king decreed, “No proselytizing!” and it is illegal to publicly say, “My religion is better than yours.” Yes, the Ghurkas are mighty-warrior mercenaries, and the long-haired, hide-clad Tibetan tribesmen among the crowd at the Tibetan New Year’s celebration at Bodnath Temple looked, well, wild. For that matter, Thamel’s “Change money? Buy rug? Buy hash?” street hustlers are as pushy as can be. Even so, the country seems suffused in the gentle, tolerant Buddha spirit.
Some 20 years ago, my partner and I spent six weeks in Nepal. In Kathmandu, a city long dependent on the Western tourist industry, it’s hard to find actual Nepalese food, compared to odd adaptations of Yankee fare. You can get “Epple Pye” in various spellings (none tasting like Mom’s), water-buffalo burgers, and pizza topped with yak cheese. In those days, only one higher-priced restaurant near the Royal Palace offered the refined cuisine of the Newari, the main Hindu tribe of the Kathmandu Valley, with subtler seasonings than India’s typical spice-riot.
One terrific Tibetan hole-in-the-wall in the funky Thamel served, among other specialties, momos — steamed dumplings stuffed with deliciously seasoned, moist, ground water buffalo. (According to Wikipedia, momos have since spread all over Kathmandu and the trekking trails as a popular “fast food.”) The momos were to haunt me ever after. Maybe a lot of dreary food makes a little very good food taste even better.
We started our trek early in the season to beat the tourist crush. Alas, we began before the yaks started to bear yaklings, hence no yak butter. Instead, there were gallon cans of rancid Superman-brand mustard oil, carried up months earlier on the last yak-trains of autumn. Up to about 12,000 feet, the nightly menus offered either daal bhat (lentils and rice with a side of mustard greens) or noodles mixed with mustard greens fried in that rancid mustard oil with a lot of salt to show hospitality, according to the customs of a land-locked country where all salt is imported and valuable. (That pricey Himalayan pink salt sold in gourmet catalogs isn’t from here; it’s from Pakistan.) Above that altitude, the fare switched to boiled, unpeeled local potatoes or barley-based “Sherpa stew.”
Our whip-smart 17-year-old guide Baudhuri soon picked up on our foodie-ness and chose inns with the best cooking. After the strenuous crossing of snowy Lamjura Pass (12,000 feet), aided by cloves of raw garlic to chew like Chiclets to help us handle the altitude, we descended to a lush valley (6500 feet) and vegged out at an inn that offered veggie momos, filled with al dente mustard greens. Periodically, there were “treats” of Epple Pye (sort of an apple-filled quesadilla rolled up in a whole-wheat chapatti) or coarse-grained unleavened whole-wheat pancakes served with delicious rhododendron honey.
One memorable night brought grilled yak rib with real mashed potatoes made with canned milk instead of potato-water. In Pangboche (13,000 feet) the most able Sherpa innkeeper-farmer, with clean sanitary facilities, had treats of home-grown cauliflower, garlic, and dried hot pepper, and he showed me how to use two rocks to grind the seasonings for his aloo gobi (cauliflower-potato curry). A pair of old Frenchmen we met on the trail, trekking annually for decades, advised us to skip the “high-altitude garbage dump” of Everest Base Camp and head, instead, for the thrilling Chukhung Valley (at a more breathable 16,000 feet), where surrounded by the great peaks — Everest, Makalu, the glamour-gal twin peaks of Ama Dablum — we’d enjoy an aged Sherpani’s famous slightly leavened pancakes, resembling Breton crêpes, served with warm honey. “Worth the detour,” as Michelin would say.
All this background for a mom ’n’ pop (or maybe just pop) place in a mall in La Mesa? Well, the background seems more important than the specifics of the restaurant: that is, you need to adjust your expectations. The food in Nepal, and at Himalayan Cuisine, is not what you eat at your favorite deluxe tandoori-and- curry North Indian restaurant, with a host of hovering waiters serving the elaborate dishes of the Mughal Empire. This is more of a Tin Fork bargain spot, but I claimed it because I wanted the momos. And some of the “Indian” food here does slant Newari — even if the rest runs to routine steam-tray curries and tandoori platters, like those you’ll find at any budget-priced Indian lunch buffet around town.
It’s a clean-looking modest-sized restaurant, replacing a pizzeria in a middle-sized mall. They started out last year as Monsoon Express, serving pizza and some Italian dishes carried over from the previous tenant, along with curries, but no more. (The website, with exciting visuals and music, hasn’t caught up with the change.) The lights are covered with handmade rectangular paper lanterns from the homeland, each different, all ornately beautiful. Beneath those shades, the dinnertime lighting is so dim, we had to borrow a flashlight from the cheerful waitress to read the menu. The owner/maître d’/chef is from Kathmandu and wears the same kind of peaked cloth cap as Afghanistan’s President Karzai.