We began with veggie samosas. These are distinct from the Indian version: the pockets are larger (more like whole-wheat cream puffs), and the thicker, chewier, puffed dough seems to be made from the same batter as the restaurant’s roti bread, and similarly griddle-cooked, rather than baked. The mildly spicy filling is the classic mashed potatoes and peas (plus crunchy toasted mustard seeds), but seasoned differently, with that Newari subtlety mentioned earlier. (That means: Don’t ask, I don’t know.)
With the dinners comes daal (lentil) soup, a thin comforting purée with its own elusive seasonings. Then came the momos. I ordered both the lamb and the veggie stuffings. They arrive ten to a plate each, which seemed just right as appetizers for a group of five, but I wish they’d been served before the soup as a separate appetizer course, because they deserve star treatment and empty stomachs to welcome them. Resembling fine, steamed dim sum, they’re not only the best dish at the restaurant, but this restaurant is the only one in San Diego to offer them, far as I know. The batter seems thinner and more delicate than in Kathmandu, like Chinese wonton skins, and like some dim sum, the dumplings are shaped into the traditional small purses. The moist and savory veggie filling has mild chopped greens (probably cabbage, certainly not mustard greens, thank goddess Tara, “the merciful one”) mingled with onions and perhaps garlic. The ground lamb filling, equally moist, includes onions, probably a touch of garlic for sweetness, and other subtle seasonings (ginger? cilantro?). The stuffing seems a close replica of the water-buffalo filling that bedazzled me in Kathmandu. The dipping sauce was tangy yogurt colored golden with turmeric.
We’d barely started on the momos when the rest of our order arrived all at once, way too soon. Understaffed kitchen followed by a rapid deluge of dishes means all the food has probably been sitting on steam tables in the kitchen, or is, at best, reheated. This indicates that the offerings may be better, fresher, at lunch than at dinner.
And there’s one more probable shortcut: Nearly all the curries are based on a tomato-and-onion mixture, a powerful hint that a large potful of this single gravy goes on almost everything, modified as needed (e.g., with cream added for the chicken tikka masala and malai kofta). The menu does offer a vindaloo, a spicy curry from Goa, some 1100 air-miles southwest of Kathmandu, but I didn’t vet the menu to check for yet more tomato gravy: Given the distance, ordering a Goan curry in a Nepalese restaurant seems a little like ordering pasta fagiole in Stockholm.
The one entrée that escaped the tomato sauce was Balti Himalayan, a mixture of meats, chicken, shrimp, and veggies in a stir-fry with a faintly sweet, coconutty edge. We’d requested our dishes “spicy!” None was, but anticipating this problem, we’d ordered a side of “911 sauce,” a fiery table sauce to daub on at will.
Malai kofta was a decent use of the tomato gravy. This held savory balls made of mashed potatoes, ground cashews, and spices in a creamy coral-colored curry. (BTW, in India, the title of this dish typically applies to curried chunks of pumpkin or winter squash instead of potato.) But the kelau paneer (the Nepali name for mattar paneer), curried peas with Indian farmer cheese, was scalded to death by the steam. The peas were sweet, but the cheese cubes were desiccated.
Tandoori is wildly popular all over the Indian subcontinent, but it started as a Moghul dish of the Northwest, and the Sikhs remain the subcontinental tandoor-masters, able to time each meat just right. I tend to avoid it in Sikh-less restaurants, but one of my companions hankered for chicken tikka masala, tandoor-cooked chicken-breast chunks in (yes) a creamy tomato curry. The chicken chunks were cardboard-dry.
We ordered biryani Buddha-style (“make us one with everything”) — lamb, chicken, shrimp. This rice entrée offered a chance for a change but differed considerably from the aristocratic dish of North Indian restaurants. The classic version is butter-infused baked basmati rice (with caramelized onions and protein of choice, or veggies), very white, but streaked gold on top with precious saffron. This one, apparently reheated, was light brown all over, like fried rice. No saffron scent, either.
We were too full for dessert, but the menu does include mango kulfi (ice cream), in addition to the usual sweet suspects. I’m a sucker for pistachio-cardamom flavored kulfi but can leave the mango. Besides, we’d already had what I’d come for.
Ratings policy note: Himalayan Cuisine’s unevenness forces me to recognize the need for a common-sense change of policy. Sometimes I’ll steal an inexpensive ethnic restaurant (like this one) from the slavering maw of our Tin Fork, but these mom ’n’ pop shops shouldn’t be subject to a rating system designed for mid-to-upscale eateries. Tin Fork doesn’t have to give star ratings; I shouldn’t either on these steals. The New York Times runs short, ratings-free reviews of new, low-priced, or far-out little ethnic restaurants, often focusing on a single specialty done especially well. So, from now on, unless the food’s fantastic at a mom ’n’ pop eatery — say, a Sab-E-Lee or Ba Ren — no rating.
7918 El Cajon Boulevard (at Baltimore Drive), La Mesa, 619-461-2503, himalayancuisine1.com.
HOURS: 11:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m. (until 7:00 Sundays, 10:00 weekends).
PRICES: Appetizers, soups, and salads, $1–$7; mains, $6.50–$10; desserts mainly $3. Discount coupons on website.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Nepalese-Indian-Tibetan food, ranging from exotica to steam-table buffet clichés. Sweet and salty lassis (yogurt drinks), chai, soft drinks. Alcohol license pending, no BYOB.
PICK HITS: Tibetan momos (both lamb and veg); samosa; daal (lentil) soup; Balti Himalayan stir-fry; Malai Kufta (potato-ball curry).
NEED TO KNOW: Star ratings not applicable. Website menu outdated (no more Italian food). Mild spicing, even if you request “hot”; order “911 sauce” on the side. Daal soup, rice, and naan bread come with dinner entrées. Plenty for vegetarians and vegans, but some curries include cream. Large groups should reserve, and bring several flashlights to read menus.