Mount Everest, it's not. But as Nepalese pinnacles go, the tender, spicy momo is worth seeking out.
This juicy dumpling marries Chinese and Indian cooking traditions -- a thin, silky wrapper, as in the best dim sum, and a moist, cumin-spiced filling, either meat or vegetables.
Momos have never been more available in the Bay Area, and you can credit the energy of recent arrivals from Nepal for that. The newest Nepalese restaurant to open is Taste of the Himalayas on Shattuck Avenue in North Berkeley, in the space that had been home to two Indian restaurants, most recent the Kurry Klub.
The Berkeley location is the third Taste of the Himalayas, and Govind Shahi, who owns the Sonoma and San Francisco branches, owns a share of the new one, which opened in January. But the faces you see there seven days a week --
Rajen and Bijaya Thapa, who manage and wait tables; Dhruva Thapa, the chef and Rajen's brother; and Laxmi Chaudhury, another server -- are the active partners.
The men wear the traditional Nepalese cap, the daura shuruwal, in a red, blue and green plaid. The women wear dresses called chaubandhi cholo, in the same fabric. Hanging from the walls are long rope braids with chiles and garlic, which hang in Nepalese homes, and original art of the homeland. You feel both far, far away and right at home.
And the food has the same effect.
Nepalese cooking, like the culture, is inseparable from its geography. The momos, tarkaris and shekuwa evoke China and India, as well as Tibet, with its yak butter and mustard oil. The influences mean some dishes taste very familiar, even if you've never had them. Others are entirely new.
In addition to Nepalese dishes, the menu at Taste of the Himalayas offers Indian ones, too, most of them popular holdovers from its Kurry Klub days (Rajen Thapa was its manager).
Momos are Nepalese, and they taste both familiar and new. This is rib- sticking mountain food, and most Nepalese people eat them. So do most people dining at Taste of the Himalayas.
Fillings are lamb, chicken (both $7.95 for six) or vegetables ($6.95), mainly chopped cabbage and spinach, seasoned with chopped chiles and onions, plus cumin and other spices and a spicy but not hot dipping sauce. Each bite delivers a burst of flavor that would go well with the traditional swig of cold beer.
Another memorable appetizer is the shekuwa ($8.50), a good-sized plate of lamb tenderloin strips that have been marinated all night, then done to a tender char in the tandoor and dosed with chopped chiles, onions and cilantro. The meat is room temperature, but when it came to spices we asked for hot. And it was. No fooling around with Western palates here. Each bite is juicy and intense -- a little bit goes a long way, as this plate is intended to be shared, and eaten with some naan or dal, washed down with beer.
Among Indian offerings, the samosas ($3.50 for two) weren't as successful, being bland and as big as a woman's fist. The shrimp pakora ($5.50), though, are light and crisp, served with mint and tamarind chutneys.
For main courses, I stuck mainly to the Nepalese dishes, more interested in the new than the familiar. The menu mixes them up -- you'll find Indian chana masala and chicken vindaloo as well as creamy, thick and mild Nepalese curries called tarkaris.
The lukshya tarkari ($12.50) is a Nepalese-spiced lamb curry cooked with green beans and sauce that's more subtle than a lot of other curries, with layers of flavor and no harsh edges.
The fish curry ($12.95) turned out to be salmon, probably not a dish seen much in Nepal. The fillet could have been cooked a little less, though it was fine, and the dark curry was restrained enough not to overwhelm the salmon taste.
Chicken tandoori ($11.95), one of several chicken dishes cooked in the tandoor, arrives on an oval grill pan so hot that it cooks spinach leaves and carrot slices floated on top of the meat. It's perfect tandoori, the exterior just beginning to char, the insides juicy and perfectly cooked.
Another night, we ordered the kukhura tikka ($12.95) from a different part of the menu, but it looked and tasted a lot like the chicken tandoori -- a good thing, but confusing.
The entrees come with basmati rice and a small bowl of lentil dal.
You can order any of 15 wines by the glass ($5 to $7.50), including a sweetish Chenin Blanc from India.
Lunch is mainly a steam-table buffet, although you can order anything off the menu.
Service is friendly, but the staff is small. The servers, who are also the owners, were overwhelmed one Saturday night when the house filled up all at once, at 7 p.m.
Our first morsel of food took 43 minutes to arrive. At first our server made excuses, but then apologized. The food, however, was worth the wait.
On weekdays, though, when it's not quite so busy, and the service was warm and efficient, starting with a greeting of "namaste" -- the traditional Nepalise greeting which, roughly translated, means "I bow to you.''