Climb every mountain
Tibet Nepal House and Himalayan Café both worth the trek
By Erica Wayne 09/01/2011
(Editor’s Note: Due to an editing error, an incorrect version of this story appeared in both our print and electronic versions. A correction will be made in next week’s edition. The following is the correct version of the story.)
I can’t believe a whole decade has passed since my first meal at the newborn Tibet Nepal House right after 9/11. And, except for a brief period of exhilaration following President Obama’s election, my worldview has remained just as bleak as it was 10 years ago. Of course, one of the few things that cheer me right up is a good meal, and TNH has provided several of those.
I noted in my 2001 review of TNH that I was spending lots of time watching escapist movies with happy endings. I’d seen “Grease” three times, “Star Wars” four, “Beetlejuice” five, “Hard Day’s Night” eight and “Spinal Tap” 11 (it’s definitely an 11!). More recently, the Harry Potter octet has served the same purpose. Voldemort’s defeat has done more for my morale than just about anything I can think of.
36 E. Holly St., Pasadena
Beer and Wine/Major Cards
36 S. Fair Oaks Ave., Pasadena
Beer and Wine/Major cards
I’d also turned to ’30s and ’40s classics with simple uplifting messages. “Lost Horizon,” made in 1937, was perfect. A plane crash-lands high in the Himalayas and the survivors are rescued by a mysterious group of people who transport them to a beautiful secluded valley. The people of Shangri-La exist in a peaceful haven, far from the strife of the outside world.
What tranquility! Having seen the film, I was predisposed from the beginning to like TNH, not only as a restaurant, but as a refuge. It’s charming, with tall ceilings, white and cream walls, white linen tablecloths and beautiful woven placemats. In keeping with the predominant religions of Tibet (Buddhist) and Nepal (Hindu), statues from both are placed ecumenically throughout the restaurant. (And paper yeti feet decorated by children hang from the rafters.)
My early impressions of the food, though, were mixed. (TNH had a relatively limited menu when it first opened; and accustomed as I was to fiery Southeast Asian and south Indian curries, I deemed some of the dishes we ordered “bland.” But through the years, I’ve learned to appreciate the more subtle tones of mountain cuisine (and TNH servers have learned to ask if diners like their food spicy).
Some of my favorite TNH dishes might easily be overlooked. The potato pickle salad ($4.99), fashioned from boiled potato slices garnished with spring onion, cilantro, chili, turmeric and roasted sesame-seed paste, is downright addictive. And the zingy cabbage curry ($7.99) sautéed with mustard seed, onion, tomato and “Himalayan spices” should not be missed.
Salmon poached in coconut milk ($14.99) is definitely not native, but it’s delightful nonetheless. And we usually order either chicken karai ($9.99), with diced onion, green pepper and fresh lime juice or chicken chili ($10.99), a similar prep which includes some green chile to perk it up.
To paraphrase the great Duke Ellington, for us a meal at TNH don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got some phing! A glass noodle dish (the pasta’s made from mung bean flour) sautéed with mushrooms, assorted veggies, a smidge of star anise and more than a smidge of exotic peppercorns is fabulous. Don’t miss it!
TNH’s dhopzi (Nepalese whole wheat baked bread) are very like Indian chapati. The Tibetan fried bread (both are $2.99) is more like Indian roti. They’re both fine for sopping up, but the apricot naan with fruit chutney ($5.99) and the “pisuwari” naan, stuffed with a mixture of raisins, chestnuts and peanuts ($4.99) make an spectacular finale to a TNH repast.
Till this year, Tibet Nepal House was the only game in town for authentic Himalayan cuisine. But a few months ago, a new Himalayan Café opened on South Fair Oaks (in the old Kansai Noodle House site). And, as fond as we’ve become of TNH, we had to give the new place a try on a recent afternoon.
Himalayan Café is a lot smaller than TNH, and it’s trying its best to be elegant. The tables are dressed in maroon cloths with mint-green napkins that match the pastel-washed walls. The aqua awnings on the exterior pick up the blue of the acoustic ceiling tiles. They have a modest lunch buffet for only $9.99.
We wanted to try some of the more interesting items on the menu instead, so we ordered a la carte. First, of course, we had to try some momos (steamed dumplings). The Café’s choices are vegetable ($9.99) or chicken ($10.99). (TN House has those and yak as well!) Our vegetable momos were wonderful, their filling as fresh as the best Shanghai eggrolls.
The Café’s vegetable roll (spiced — and spicy — broccoli, cauliflower, potato, peppers, onion, mushroom and carrot filling stuffed into a homemade egg-washed bread and served with mint chutney) was a real treat at $10.99. The wrap came cut into two pieces, perfect for sharing. We also sampled the Café’s variant of chicken chili ($12.99), pepped up with plenty of ginger, garlic and lime juice. In my opinion, it’s every bit as good as TNH’s.
We’ve yet to try their cabbage ($8.99) and, unfortunately, the Café doesn’t seem to have phing on the menu, unless it’s disguised under a different title (“chow mine” — $8.99). (Thupka, a hearty egg noodle-based dish available at both restaurants, is another thing entirely!) But, I did order a glass of refreshing homemade Himalayan lemonade ($2.49) spiked with lime juice and fresh ginger.
Neither Tibet/Nepal House nor the Himalayan Café is exactly Shangri-La (although that or Everest or Katmandu might be more evocative names). But, unlike poor Ronald Colman in “Lost Horizon,” who left that earthly paradise and was never able to find it again, at least I know how to get to either restaurant the next time I’m looking for a Himalayan mountain high and temporary respite from the world’s woes.