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.
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.