Step inside the South Asian Grocery on Lorain Avenue and you'll find ingredients like chana dal, chappati flour, gram flour, turmeric, ghee, extra-long grain rice, fresh herbs and other Nepalese food products one is not likely to unearth at the local Giant Eagle. Less than half a mile away on the same street is Himalayan Restaurant, Cleveland's first eatery showcasing foods from the "highest point on Earth."
"We have a huge Nepalese community here," says owner Ramesh Gurung, who happens to be cousins with the owner of South Asian Grocery. "Our community here, I would estimate, is more than 5,000."
Gurung points out that many within the Nepalese community avoid dining out at local restaurants because of the language barrier, which makes it difficult to do everything from place an order to pay for the meal. But since opening his restaurant in November, he's begun to see more and more of his neighbors coming in to celebrate special occasions or to pick up food to cater an event. Of course, he's also seeing a steady rise in visits from the non-immigrant community who are curious about a cuisine that's starting to get some local attention.
Momo, often called Tibetan dumplings, are perhaps the most familiar Nepalese food. These housemade dumplings are filled with finely chopped meat and/or vegetables and steamed. We ordered the chicken ($9.99) and received a dozen half-moon shaped pieces. The wrapper was thin, soft and delicate and the filling was juicy and brightly flavored with heaps of garlic and ginger. They are served with a spicy tomato-based chutney on the side.
While we waited for our entrees to arrive, we nibbled from a basket of paper-thin papadum, crispy lentil flour crackers that we dipped into zippy cilantro chutney. Those come gratis, but you can also order an appetizer version ($3.99) that arrives topped with diced tomatoes, onions and fresh herbs.
Fans of traditional Indian biryani, we went all in on the Himalayan chicken biryani ($9.99) and were not at all disappointed. A heaping mound of perfectly steamed and seasoned long-grained rice concealed large pieces of moist boneless chicken thighs. As with many of the dishes we enjoyed here, there was a welcome presence of heat without the need for a fire extinguisher. A cool, creamy raita, served with the rice, also helped keep the heat at bay.
The menu here is as lengthy as one would find in a conventional Indian restaurant, which is to say that it's pretty overwhelming. But we went out of our way to locate the dishes that were unfamiliar to us. That led us to Nepali-style chicken chow mein ($9.99), a dish that resembles Chinese lo mein but has a completely different composition of spices and aromatics, including moderate heat. A Nepalese goat curry ($10.99) looks like standard issue Northern Indian fare, but its electricity somehow makes those classics taste pale by comparison. Jiggly bone-in meat is enveloped in an earthy, exotic and intense sauce, the perfect partner to a large platter of long-grained rice.
All of the Indian dishes we tried, from creamy butter chicken to bright red tandoori chicken, were excellent; we just wished that there were more Nepalese foods to try. On our first visit, the server rattled off a number of items that were not available, a large percentage of which were the already-outnumbered Nepali specialties.
"On our next menu we're bringing more Nepali recipes because our neighborhood is so excited to taste Nepali food," Gurung tells me. "We will get rid of some of the Indian food and add Nepali food — I'd say make it 50-50."
Stop by between the hours of 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. and you can sample a number of Nepalese and Indian dishes on a wonderful all-you-can-eat lunch buffet ($9.99). On the day we hit it there were a pair of soups, six vegetable or meat-based items including chicken biryani, plain basmati, and dessert: rice pudding swimming in sweetened milk. When we asked about naan, the owner gladly sent out an order straight from the tandoori oven, fluffy as a Himalayan cloud with blistered edges.
Management spent more than a year renovating the former Cuisine Du Cambodge restaurant, which closed two years back, into an attractive, comfortable space. Given that Himalayan is Cleveland's first Nepalese restaurant, I just wish servers did a better job describing and promoting the foods of their motherland. I'm hopeful that as they become more comfortable with the process of running a restaurant, that will come.