The path to nirvana starts with appetizers at Himalayan Cafe in Old Pasadena. Those hot, steamy curry-stuffed dumplings called momo look exactly like twisty-top Chinese xiao long bao, but their fillings taste vaguely Indian. Every spectacular bite, accented with bright pungent "pickle" dipping sauce, shows off the Indo-Chinese personality of a cuisine that makes its home in the valleys and hills in the shadow of Mt. Everest.
On the menu, familiar terms like pakoras, lamb masala and sag aloo give an impression that Nepal's food mimics that of northern India. "But we use completely different masalas and a lot less oil," says the cafe's Nepal-born chef, Chudamani Adhikari.
His bhindi tareko exemplifies the style: Sliced okra is flash-fried to banish any slime. The crisp-edged pods, along with onion and tomato, glimmer with a thin veil of capillary-expanding spice. There's no actual sauce to speak of, just flavor-infused vegetable (the kitchen will adjust the heat to your liking).
Adhikari, a bespectacled slender man, exudes enthusiasm for cooking. Lured into the professional kitchen after his childhood in a small rural town, he got his first big-city job in a Katmandu hotel. "I fell in love with the excitement of the work, and in the kitchen I discovered what I wanted to become," he says. After chef's school in Bangalore, India, gigs in international tourism followed. His first jobs in L.A. were at neighborhood restaurants where he cooked strictly Indian dishes.
But Nepalese cooking is his soul food. And at Himalayan Cafe, Adhikari offers us glimpses of the fare he grew up eating in Gorkha, his traditional village several hours' drive from Nepal's capital, Katmandu. There he would milk the family buffalo each morning before school.
"The thing I miss over here," he says, "is Nepali ghee, which is made from buffalo milk; it flavors the food in a way that might not appeal to American tastes."
His menu, though, has plenty that appeals to evolving L.A. tastes: For a start, the rustic produce-centered meals now gaining a following here are the norm in Nepal. And Adhikari hits it out of the park with his vegetable creations. Eggplant enters a different realm in his bhenta ra aloo. It becomes almost creamy, simmered with potato, tomato, lots of garlic and freshly toasted, crushed spices. Sag aloo, spinach sautéed with potato chunks, lights up the palate with a kiss of fresh chiles. Slithery house-made egg noodles called thukpa bob with vegetables or chicken chunks in spice-rich tomato-y broth that is tummy-warming comfort food.
Although meat is scarce in Nepal (lucky families might get a whole goat once a year at festival time, but then it's back to locally grown vegetables and the occasional chicken), carnivores are well taken care of here.
The cafe's tandoori-cooked meats, chicken and fish, known as sekuwa, turn out nicely juicy. They're more highly seasoned than their Indian counterparts; you'll know you're not eating Indian-style tandoori after a few bites.
Meat curries, in the traditional Himalayan style, are less saucy than Indian ones. Chicken "chilli," a stellar example, is slabs of white meat steeped in capsicum-laced onion and tomato juices that permeate and fuse with the meat's essences. Adhikari is proud to tell you he doesn't pre-make curries and reheat them. Rather, he cooks and seasons each dish to order, which helps the taste of individual spices pop with a zingy intensity.
We suspect the burrito-like constructions dubbed Himalayan rolls may have sprung from the chef's imagination. The luscious stuffed, flaky flat breads are the sort of hand-held extravaganza you'd line up at a great food truck to score. Packed to bursting with lightly sauced tender lamb or chicken cubes, they belong on every devoted eater's must-try list.
Though just a small storefront, Himalayan Cafe aims to coddle patrons with creature comforts: There's a civilized wine display, ice-cream-like Indian kulfi for dessert, table linens and harmoniously arranged artifacts hung on pastel-washed walls the color of a Himalayan evening sky. The setting encourages you to sit back, soak up the serene ambience and imagine you're traveling ever closer to nirvana.
Location: 36 S. Fair Oaks Ave., Old Pasadena, (626) 564-1560 or (626) 676-3550, http://www.himalayancafeLA.com.
Prices: Appetizers and momos, $4.99 to $9.99; entrees, $8.99 to $16.99; breads, noodles and desserts, $2.50 to $8.99.
Details: Open 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. City parking lot and street meters. Credit cards accepted. Beer and wine available.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times