Monday, March 22, 2010

A Himalayan Breeze - Fragrant Spices Abound in the Tibetan and Nepalese Cuisine of Tibet Nepal House

Years ago, as I was walking up to the mysterious-looking sign for Tibet Nepal House, a myriad of questions flashed in my mind: "What's Tibetan food like?" "And what's the food of Nepal like?" "The bottom of the sign says 'Himalayan Cuisine' - how's that different from Tibetan and Nepalese dishes?" There was a bit of trepidation from my guest, but my curiosity was greater than their hesitancy, and after that first meal 3 years ago, I've been going back ever since. :)

It turns out that Tibetan and Nepalese dishes are more than approachable, with many offerings bursting with incredible flavors thanks to the usage of Ginger, Garlic, Cardamom, Cinnamon, Saffron and other fragrant ingredients. The extensive menu is the creation of Chef Karma Tenzing Bhotia, a native of Nepal with a Tibetan ancestry. And while initially the menu may seem intimidating, since there are many lesser-seen words - "Phing", "Thukpa", "Phaley", etc. - the English translations do an admirable job of describing what it is you're ordering.

The decor is quite simply, total visual cacophony, but in a peaceful, mellow sense, if that's possible. :) Even after numerous visits over the years, I still find myself in awe of the white tablecloth tables mixed with Tibetan and Nepalese paintings, hundreds of crayon drawings from children on cute Abominable Snowman / Yeti cardboard cutouts, along with a huge American flag hanging in the very back.

One of my favorite drinks to start out with is their Herbal Teapot of Ginger Tea. They take a good quality Black Tea and infuse it with Ginger, and the result is a delicate, easy drinking Tea with a smooth mouthfeel, and a nice soul-warming finish.

On a menu full of interesting-looking choices, their Yak Meat section is the one that's consistently caught the eye of every guest I've taken here. And their best Yak offering is the Yak Mo-Mo (Ground, Seasoned Yak Meat Stuffed Dumplings).

And as potentially strange as it may sound on paper, what Chef Bhotia has done with the Yak in these Dumplings is nothing short of sublime. The Yak Dumplings are perfectly cooked, with a tender, yet firm Dumpling skin filled with this completely delicious wave of flavors that hits the senses: A juicy pocket of the lightly gamy Yak meat, combines with Cumin, Turmeric, Ginger, Onions and Garlic to create a truly sweet succulence. Wonderful. :)

It's also served with 2 Dipping Sauces: An addictive Mint-Cilantro Sauce, and a Red Hot Sauce, made from Sun-Ripened Chilies, Garlic, Vinegar and Salt. Both pair nicely with the Mo-Mo.

(Note: The Yak Mo-Mo is not listed under the Appetizers section (where the other Mo-Mos are listed), but rather, in the Yak Meat section of the menu).)

Being a huge Lamb fan (and after seeing what Chef Bhotia can do with Yak), I couldn't wait to try their Lamb Sekuwa (Lamb Marinated Overnight in Himalayan Spices, Clay Oven Roasted).

The Lamb Sekuwa arrives on a sizzling hot plate, with the aromas from the still cooking meat engaging your nose, and the crackle and pop arresting your ears. I take a bite, and a wave of Cilantro, Cumin, Ginger and Garlic hit me. They're incredible flavors, but then the Salt hits, and pushes this potentially great dish halfway off the scale from "great" to "too salty." It's not inedible by any means - bursting with spices and flavors that challenge the palate - but if they cut back the Salt by half, it'd be perfect. The Lamb is also served well-done, but our server mentions that traditionally, all their meat is cooked that way back home. Still, with a bit of Naan (Clay Oven-Baked Bread) or Rice to dilute the Salt, it turns out much better.

While some of their dishes are served with Bhaat (Steamed Himalayan Basmati Rice), they also make a variety of Roti (Bread) to complement their dishes as well. On this visit, we order their Garlic Naan (Leavened Bread Garnished with Garlic and Cilantro, Baked in a Clay Oven).

Their Garlic Naan arrives hot and fragrant, just out of the oven. It's a decent version of Garlic Naan, but there are better versions around town.

We also try their Chyamtange Dhopzi (Stone Ground, Whole Wheat Fine Flour Bread Baked in a Clay Oven).

It's a hearty, dense Bread that tastes a bit flat, but has a great whole grain scent permeating each bite.

Okra is an underutilized ingredient, so I'm happy to see it featured in their Bhuteko Ramtoria (Okra Sauteed with Tomatoes, Onions, Bell Peppers and Himalayan Spices).

Unfortunately, this is one dish where the flavors just don't seem to come together properly: Chef Bhotia uses Coriander and Cumin along with Onions and Tomatoes, but the end result is a surprisingly bland dish. It's very mild, despite the Coriander and Cumin and it's been the same result the multiple times I've ordered it over the years.

Their Gaunle Khasi (Fresh Goat Meat, Onions, Tomatoes, Ginger and Himalayan Spices) is something that has been consistently enjoyable.

The Goat has been consistently stewed to a meaty tenderness while still retaining some chew, but it's the gorgeous Black Cardamom and Timoor (a Himalayan Chive that can only be found 1,500+ feet above sea level, according to our server) that are the stars of this dish. The Timoor adds this light, pleasing warming sensation as you're eating the dish, and our server humorously points out that if you add too much Timoor, it can cause you to have hiccups, so it's used sparingly. Touches of Cumin and Cinnamon help round out this outstanding dish.

On another visit, having fallen in love with their Yak Mo-Mo Dumplings, I try their Annapurna Yak (Yak Meat Sauteed with Green Chili, Bell Peppers, Onions, Tomatoes and Himalayan Spices).

This is one dish that reflects the influence of neighboring China, as it has a very familiar "Chinese stir-fry" taste, with the Bell Peppers and Onions really coming to the forefront. Prepared in this manner, the Yak's leanness really comes through, making it a bit tough to eat (compared to the Ground Yak Filling in the Dumplings).

Their Maasu Mo-Mo, Chicken (Steamed Ground Chicken Stuffed Dumplings) arrives next.

It's light, aromatic and has pleasing herbal notes to the Ground Chicken, with a thicker Dumpling skin (like a Chinese Shui Jiao) as opposed to the thinner skin on the Yak Mo-Mo. It's enjoyable, but their Yak Mo-Mo is by far my favorite. :)

One of the most surprising dishes from Tibet Nepal House is their Tofu Saag (Sauteed Tofu Cooked with Pureed Spinach and Seasoned with Himalayan Spices).

On paper, Tofu and Pureed Spinach don't sound all that appealing, but the end result is a testament to Chef Bhotia's skills: There's a sexy creaminess to the Spinach (without dairy), that's *so* delightful and silky. The Tofu takes on the flavors of the Spinach and spices and it's become of my favorite dishes on the menu. :)

Another excellent dish is their Kukhura Methi (Fresh Chicken Cooked with Fenugreek Leaves, Garlic and Himalayan Spices).

The Chicken is wonderfully tender and succulent, and the Fenugreek Leaves add this beautiful flavor profile that's so rarely seen in dishes around town. Excellent! :)

On my most recent visit, my less adventurous guests feel like Lamb over Yak, so we start with Maasu Mo-Mo, Lamb (Steamed Ground Lamb Stuffed Dumplings).

These turn out to be better than the Chicken Mo-Mo, with the Ground, Marinated Lamb exuding a great combination of flavors from Cumin, Black Pepper and Garlic.

We also decide to try another of their appetizers, Kukhura Pakora (Deep-Fried Chicken Strips with Chickpea Flour Batter and Spices).

As I gingerly put a piece of the Kukhura Pakora in my mouth, expecting another exotic burst of flavors, disappointment sets in. Perhaps my expectations are too high - "Himalayan Fried Chicken" sounds like a pretty awesome dish - but unfortunately, it tastes like average Fried Chicken Strips with maybe a hint of Turmeric. This is one dish I won't be ordering again.

I'm not sure how good the seafood dishes are in the Himalayan Mountains (and I probably should've trusted my instincts on this ;), but one of my guests is craving Shrimp, so we decide to try their Himalayan Shrimp Sekuwa (Clay Oven Roasted Jumbo Shrimp Marinated in Himalayan Spices).

The Shrimp turn out to be completely overcooked and dry, with a predominant Paprika Yogurt characteristic coming through the most.

For some reason over the past 3 years, I had never ordered their Tibetan Bread (Deep Fried, Whole Wheat Flour Bread) before, but it's now part of the items I have to order whenever I return to Tibet Nepal House.

Imagine this sumptuous, lightly crisped, piping hot round of Deep Fried Bread - almost like a mild, fresh-made Doughnut - and you have an idea of what their Tibetan Bread is like. We inhaled the order almost immediately (paired with whatever was in front of us as an excuse to eat more of this deep fried goodness :).

Their Everest Yak Stew (Yak Cooked with Potatoes, Caraway Seed, Onion, Garlic and Himalayan Spices) sounds like another potential winner, and comes recommended by our server.

It's slightly more successful than the Annapurna Yak, but not by much. The Yak is very lean, so even in this stew, it tastes chunky and stringy, and instead of the Caraway Seed or other spices taking the center stage, it's really the Potatoes, Onions and Garlic, which makes this taste rather "safe" and familiar, like a solid Meat & Potatoes Stew, but nothing more.

After their wonderful Tofu Saag, I'm curious how their Kukhura Saag (Chicken Cooked with Pureed Spinach, Onions, Tomatoes and Himalayan Spices) would turn out.

Thankfully it's even better than the Tofu Saag: The Pureed Spinach and Onions are just as creamy as before, but now it's layered with juicy, tender pieces of Chicken infused with Garlic and Ginger and the Pureed Spinach base. Wonderful! :)

We finish up the meal with Kheer (House-made Rice Pudding topped with Almonds, Walnuts and Raisins), which tastes like a nicely made Rice Pudding with strong Cinnamon flavors.

Service is a bit lacking at Tibet Nepal House. It's not that it's "bad," but rather it's very laid back and slow. The servers seem friendly enough, but trying to get their attention to get drinks or refills or any other needs is an exercise in patience at times. There are no busboys here, and during my visits over the years, I usually see only 2 people manning the entire front of the house, so it's understandable for them to be a bit slow at times. Prices range from $4.99 - $18.99 for main dishes. We averaged about ~$42 per person (including tax and tip).

Ultimately, it's the interesting palette of spices that makes Tibet Nepal House shine the most. And with such an amazing array of flavors to draw from, like Timboor, Cumin, Coriander, Black and White Cardamom, etc., it's disappointing to see the troubling amount of misses - Kukhura Pakora (Fried Chicken Strips), Himalayan Shrimp Sekuwa (Clay Oven Roasted Shrimp), Bhuteko Ramtoria (Okra Saute) - amidst some great, engaging winners, like their Tofu Saag (Sauteed Tofu with Pureed Spinach), Kukhura Methi (Fresh Chicken with Fenugreek Leaves) and Gaunle Khasi (Fresh Goat Meat Cooked with Coriander, Cumin, Tomatoes, Ginger and other Spices). With so many landmines, it's easy to see why some people may be disappointed (and rightfully so). But once you discover the excellent dishes on the menu and can navigate your way around the misses, there's a lot worth returning for. If nothing else, I can't wait to return for more of their Yak Mo-Mo (Marinated Yak Dumplings). :)

Rating: 6.8 (out of 10.0)

Tibet Nepal House
36 E. Holly Street
Pasadena, CA 91103
Tel: (626) 585-0955

Hours: [Lunch] [Buffet] Tues - Fri, 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.
[Champagne Brunch] Sat - Sun, 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.
[Dinner] Tues - Thurs, Sun, 5:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.
Fri - Sat, 5:00 p.m. - 10:30 p.m.
Closed Mondays.

(Note: There's 90 Minute Free Parking at 171 N. Raymond Avenue (just a half block away from Tibet Nepal House.))


pleasurepalate said...

Tibet Nepal House has its hits and misses, but for the most part, I've been happy with my meals there. Totally agree with seafood comment. That's not their forte, so I always stay clear.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Abby,

I agree. :) Like you, once I've found the hits and dishes to order, I can now safely order all their strengths and my guests enjoy the meals there. :)

JustinM said...

Very nice review. I have been here twice, and both times the food was very good. However, the service was just pathetic. Both meals took close to two hours. The food (and prices) just aren't good enough to justify that kind of a time commitment.

Long meals can be fun when the service is good. But when you have to wait fifteen minutes to order a drink, another ten to receive it, and you only see a server every twenty minutes or so when you're waiting more than an hour to receive your food in an almost-empty dining room, it's not something I am ever interested in doing again.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi PulledPorker,

Thanks. It sounds like you encountered the same type of service that I've run into over the years, but thankfully I've never had service as bad as what you had (yikes). Sorry to hear. But I agree that on the slowest service visits, it made me really rethink wanting to go back (which is reflected in my final score).

Banana Wonder said...

Mmm I've been here and I think I've tried all the yak dishes but have completely failed to ever try the dumplings, which look amazing (esp the lamb version).

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Anna,

You definitely have to try their Mo-Mo (Dumplings), especially their Yak and Lamb versions. Let me know if you do. :) Enjoy.

weezermonkey said...

I've always wanted to come here, but I *still* haven't visited!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi weezermonkey,

It's not worth a long drive, but if you're in the area, you should stop by and try some of the recommended dishes. Let me know if you go. :)

Gastronomer said...

Yak dumplings? Count me in! Thanks for trying the landmines so that we don't have to. :-)

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Gastronomer,

No problem. (^_~) The Yak Dumplings are definitely one of the best things on the menu. Let me know if you get a chance to try them. :)

mattatouille said...

I wasn't so hot on the yak dumplings because, like some things on the menu you mentioned, they were much too salty to enjoy. The flavor of the meat was certainly intriguing, but I sense that the cooks are just too heavy-handed with the salt.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi mattatouille,

Thanks for the thoughts. I'm bummed to hear that you ran into a night where the Yak Mo Mo were overseasoned. Sigh. I guess I got lucky each time we ordered it the Yak Mo Mo and had it come out just right. I think they need to work on their quality control perhaps.

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