Did it start with the “goddess pants?” Not exactly. I had been curious about the origins and relationship between the pair of Tibetan-Nepalese businesses on Holly Street — Tibet Nepal House and Tibet Nepal Galleria — as well as the Himalayan Café around the corner on Fair Oaks. How is it that Pasadena has two restaurants specializing in “Himalayan” cuisine, as well as a charming boutique featuring imported clothing, art, books, and jewelry from Tibet and Nepal?
Pre-lockdown, I was a lunchtime regular at Tibet Nepal House, where they used to serve a generous and fresh lunch buffet special for $8.99 in the reliably placid, sky-lit dining room. After-lunch always required a stroll next door to the Tibet Nepal Galleria, where over the years I had become friendly with the owner Anjana Sunuwar. Only on Holly Street could I enjoy fresh yak momos and find an obscure paperback copy of “The Dharma” by Kalu Rinpoche. The Galleria was my go-to destination for last-minute, reasonably priced and fairly exotic holiday gifts: earrings, incense, sandalwood soap, tantric statuary, and well, “goddess pants,” the latter being billowy one-size silk-like pantaloons printed with complicated paisley patterns and colors.
Last week, my girlfriend suddenly announces, “I need 100 pairs of goddess pants!” [The details of this gambit may be revealed in coming weeks…] No problem… except I quickly discover the storefront once housing the Tibet Nepal Galleria is now a dead-empty shell. Restaurants now may be reduced to take-out and delivery but small local retail stores didn’t even have that option, and I now experience my first, stinging realization of that fact. Next door, at the Tibet Nepal House restaurant, I ask if they know how I might contact Anjana, and after some conference in the back the cheery managing partner Pinku Niraula — masked and gloved — hands me a slip of paper with Anjana’s phone number.
Suffice to say, on Saturday afternoon, Anjana — husband and son in tow — arrives on our back porch with three huge bags stuffed with… goddess pants. I try to take the opportunity to quiz her about the history of the store and her relationship to the restaurant. Both venues opened in 2001 with owners related to Anjana. She took over the boutique store in 2007, while Pinku and his partners assumed the helm of the restaurant in 2010. Meanwhile, around the corner and across Colorado on South Fair Oaks, the Himalayan Café opened up in 2011. The respective businesses were unrelated to each other, but the Nepalese owners were all friendly acquaintances.
Now, about those momos …
“Himalayan” cuisine is a loose amalgam of Tibetan, Nepalese and north Indian cookery and influence. The Himalayan Café — with two other outlets in San Dimas and Baldwin Park — trends more sharply to traditional north Indian fare, including a menu section for Biryani rice dishes.
When it comes to regional authenticity, Tibet Nepal House delivers the goods. The menu here features a variety of dishes featuring yak meat, which is sourced fresh from a farm in Colorado, according to Pinku. Yak meat is both central and peculiar to the Tibetan diet. The Vajrayana sect of Buddhism originated in Tibet without observing the traditional tenet of vegetarianism. On the cold and arid Tibetan plateau, yak meat provided the only reliable source of protein and remains a notable and exceptional staple there. Likewise, it provides an alternative to beef for carnivorous but otherwise observant Hindus. At Tibet Nepal House, both yak chili and yak stew can be found on the menu, as well as their yak momos, which are delicate, folded stuffed dumplings.
Other distinct regional preparations on the menu include Nepalese sekuwa dishes as well as Tibetan thukpa and phing. Sekuwa is a Nepalese spice blend rub and marinade used on grilled meat and vegetables before open-fire grilling. Thukpa is a popular noodle soup from eastern Tibet, and phing are transparent glass noodles made from mung bean starch.
If you are an international dumpling freak like me, a familiarity with Tibetan momos is a must.
Typically served steamed, momos can come in a variety of sizes and shapes with no prescribed crimping pattern. At Tibet Nepal House, they are square with the corners folded into the center of the stuffing, offered in vegetable and chicken preps as well as the yak. As appetizers, the vegetable, chicken and yak momos are $8.99, $9.99 and $10.99 respectively. A dinner-sized portion of yak momos is priced at $15.99. The dumplings are served with a house-made Achaar or dipping sauce.
At Himalayan Café, momos are also featured but only with chicken or vegetable fillings. A combination plate with both is available for $12. Here, the vegetable momos are small and round with circular crimping, while the chicken momos appear to be standard Chinese-style crescents (and likely taken straight from a freezer bag). It’s really not a competition and I’ve never really met a bad dumpling, but go to Tibet Nepal House if you want some honest Himalayan authenticity.
On that note, as I summon the temerity to again sample some local restaurant take-out offerings, I am inevitably drawn back to places like Tibet Nepal House, where I was once a reliable regular. Stand by your old standbys is my advice and you don’t need me to tell you where to go. Every place in town is doing less than 50 percent of their usual business, and most have had to layoff staff. Try to protect the places you love.
As for the goddess pants that drew me back to Holly Street, Anjana still has some left and you can find them and many other fascinating Nepalese and Tibetan curios via her Instagram site.
Again, try to protect the places you love! –