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Recipes from an enchanted land

Posted: September 14th, 2018 | Featured, Food & Drink, Restaurant Reviews | No Comments

By Frank Sabatini Jr. | Restaurant Review

This wasn’t the first time I ate Himalayan food. But it was probably the best.

As with other restaurants around San Diego operated by Nepalese transplants, the cuisine at Himalayan Curry & Grill is similar to that of neighboring northern India, yet it has its own distinct markers.

“Our food is lighter and healthier,” said owner Khem Kharel, a native of Nepal. “It doesn’t have all the butter and cream of Indian food.”

Though Nepal is a mosaic of different cultures scattered amid some of the highest mountain peaks and most fertile valleys in the world, the cuisine generally shows off a greater concentration of spices compared to Indian dishes. Such is the case here, found unexpectedly in a strip plaza fronted by Black Angus at the east end of Friars Road.

Those spices typically include cardamom, ginger, cloves, black pepper, paprika and turmeric, which in Nepal, is used also as a first-aid rub for cuts and bruises.

“It’s good for you on the inside too,” said manager Puru Pudasaini as he cited five different types of lentils that go into the restaurant’s turmeric-rich daal soup. I ordered a bowl and was awed by its earthy, floral undertones.

The stage was set for a flurry of other exotic flavors in a peaceful red-linen dining room defined by checkered ceiling panels of various colors, floral-print carpeting, and lanterns beckoning to the many spiritual celebrations in Nepal’s capital of Kathmandu.

Chicken chhoila is a common party food in Nepal that’s spicy. The recipe, however, typically calls for goat or buffalo. Here, it’s an appetizer served in a teardrop-shaped bowl brimming with cubed chicken breast, stewed tomatoes, onions, bell peppers and copious spices including powdered chilies. The overall flavor is divinely intense. As for those semi-bitter crunchy bits you’ll encounter along the way, they’re fenugreek seeds.

An appetizer of chicken chhoila (Photo by Frank Sabatini Jr.)

The vegetable pakora I tried were similar to Indian versions, but less greasy and offering hints of fennel seed and chaat masala, a spice blend containing mango powder. They’re served with excellent mint chutney and tamarind sauce.

Vegetable pakora with tamarind and mint chutneys (Photo by Frank Sabatini Jr.)

Butter chicken is an irresistible Indian dish served here in a brilliant red sauce laced with butter and cream. It’s one of the better recipes I’ve encountered because of the addition of what I suspect are large measures of paprika, garlic and cinnamon in the sauce. Whatever goes into it, the boneless, skinless thigh meat picks up a memorable depth of flavor.

Butter chicken in a striking red sauce (Photo by Frank Sabatini Jr.)

From the category of Himalayan specialties, vegetable momo are like a hybrid of Chinese and Eastern European dumplings. Their pierogi-like casings contain minced cabbage, spinach, cashew nuts, onions and cilantro. Served eight to an order with a thick, yellow dipping sauce containing turmeric and “up to 20 other spices,” according to Pudasaini, it’s a main course that might be better shared as an appetizer among three or four people.

Himalayan “momo” dumplings filled with vegetables (Photo by Frank Sabatini Jr.)

The menu is kind to vegetarians. There are more than 20 meat-free options such as mushroom tikka masala, paneer cheese tandoori, and tempting vegetable medleys cooked in flavorful Himalayan sauces.

Lamb lovers are in luck too with options showcasing the meat in different herbs and sauces. You’ll also find a handful of shrimp and fish dishes as well as bone-in goat steeped in curry.

All meals come with a choice of fluffy basmati rice or house-made naan bread (the garlic version pairs supremely to the butter chicken).

Kharel also operates Himalayan Cuisine at 7918 El Cajon Blvd., in La Mesa. The menus at both locations are the same.

—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. Reach him at fsabatini@san.rr.com.

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