On the last line of my resumé (which is, of course, no longer in circulation as it was, but if you’re interested in paying me to eat out and then wax poetic about it, let’s talk ;) ) I list a few of my personal interests. In the very few interviews I’ve had over the years, these interests have always been the topic of most of the conversation. “So throwing dinner parties is a hobby, huh?” *smiling* I even write a formal project plan if it’s going to be more than 8 people. “And you like to bake?” *shaking head* Uh, actually, I try to bake. “And you like to explore exotic and ethnic cuisines?” *enthusiastically nodding head* New cuisines, yes! But I don’t eat weird stuff like bugs or animal organs, in any cuisine. Then, the conversation turns toward the regions of Mexico, Korean barbecue, northern versus southern Indian, and why I don’t particularly like southeast Asian.
But then I started to worry because if ever I get fired from this place for, oh, I don’t know, excessive use of work time and resources for personal blogification, I will have to send my resumé out again. But not in its current version - I will have to make an edit to that last line because I’m starting to run out of new cuisines to explore. In LA. Or at least within driving distance. I can’t fly. Maybe the new version will have to read “Exploring the same half-dozen-or-so cuisines that are represented in southern California, over and over again.” And then interviews might actually be about *gasp!* my work (in)experience!
Thank goodness, though, for a recent list of the top 25 cheap eats published by Los Angeles magazine. It seems that in these parts, cheap is often very closely associated with ethnic. I added this mini-list to my growing master-list of to-dine projects, but made a mental footnote that this project could still be signed, sealed and delivered even if I only make it to the listed restaurants on the Westside, about ¼ of the list. And what luck that the first one on the Westside is Katmandu Kitchen. Off the cheap eats list, and I had never tried Nepalese food before. That’s what I call a win-win situation.
If you’re going to Katmandu Kitchen, take a sherpa, because if you rely on normal navigational techniques to get a taste of the Himalayas, you’ll get lost. The map on their website is backwards (hopefully it’s fixed by now since we let the manager know when we got there), and it’s hard to distinguish Katmandu’s simple sign from all the other tiny, colorful, ethno-sounding restaurants along this strip of Venice Boulevard. Oh yeah, and saddle up your yak, because there’s no parking lot and street parking is a pain in the hassle. We almost decided to sit under the thatched roof patio out front simply to watch for parking patrol since we were halfway in the red zone.
The restaurant inside is dark and small, but brightened with Nepali accents here and there. There are only about ten tables, draped with colorful woven table cloths to make it “nice,” but covered with a thin sheet of glass to make it easy to clean up. At midweek lunch time, there were only a pair of granola guys in the corner, a lone woman reading and eating against the wall, and halfway through our meal, another lone woman took a seat on the patio. Except for the one manager/host/server, no one appeared to be Nepali. Or Tibetan? Wait, are they Himalayan?
Here is where my miserable ignorance of the culturo-socio-geography of that region of Asia will become grossly apparent. The restaurants namesake is Katmandu, the capital city of Nepal, a fairly small country landlocked between India and China. However, this region of China that directly borders Nepal is also known as Tibet, the setting for lots of adventure movies and where the Dalai Lama is supposed to live. The natural border between Nepal and Tibet is formed by the Himalayas, a mountain range that also includes the snowy summit of Mount Everest. So what does all this – Katmandu, Nepal, China, Tibet, and the Himalayas – mean to me? It means one thing: yak. LOL!
More on yak later, but for now, Nepalese food represents its culinary geography. It is sort of an earthier, less spicy in terms of heat, but just as interesting version of Indian food with many of the same flavors. Chinese influences are more subtle in taste, and more obvious in techniques. There’s also a fairly pronounced emphasis on vegetables, likely in keeping with many associated religious traditions from Tibetan China and India.
Like many of it’s Indian cousins, Katmandu Kitchen serves a lunch buffet (as of this posting, $5.99). One quick pass through the buffet and most of the items looked familiar – roast chicken and various vegetarian curries and stews. No yak, no goat, and none of
the signature Nepali dumplings, momos. The server tells us that yak is never on the buffet because the exotic meat is way too expensive. My dining companion was a little disappointed, but not me. I was excited about the buffet, and was perfectly happy ordering momos from the kitchen on the side. Goat? I like to explore, but I’m not that adventurous. Yes, I realize that goat is not that exotic, but something about bleating kid goats and such...I don’t love lamb either.
My trek through Himalayan cuisine started with black magic soup, a mysterious grayish beige broth with very suspicious looking black, spidery things that looked like rosemary’s evil cousin floating on top. Black magic, huh? I may not eat goat, but I never pass up the potential for a good high! I didn’t feel any magic and there weren’t any hallucinations, but after tasting the broth and some of the black lentils that sunk to the bottom, I felt appetized. The black herbs, no name given, are specific to Nepal. An herb whose name we cannot know or speak of? *raises eyebrows*
So I probably wouldn’t eat goat on my own, and I don’t love lamb, but I did venture a taste of the thakali lamb, bone-in pieces of lamb cooked in a spicy sauce in the style of the Nepali tribe, Thakali. It basically looked like any other Indian curry, with less of the curry. The sauce was spicy-flavorful, though not hot, and unfortunately, the lamb meat was difficult to remove from the bone, was a bit tough and dry, and smelled and tasted very distinctly of lamb, so I didn’t enjoy it as much as others might.
However, I very much enjoyed the chicken, which didn’t have a tag on the sneeze guard with a more distinctive name other than “roast chicken.” Like the lamb, chicken pieces still had the bones attached, but the tender, juicy meat separated quite easily. Like items from an Indian tandoor, the roast chicken wasn’t in any sort of gravy or curry, just spiced. There was nothing extraordinary about the flavoring other than that it tasted pretty good.
Many of the vegetable curries have names that sound very similar to their Indian counterparts, but on a menu, sometimes they are spelled slightly differently. Though it wasn’t on the buffet, alu bhyanta is a Nepali eggplant and potato curry, which I would recognize as aloo bhartha. Katmandu’s buffet had a bamboo curry with little beans which was good but could have used a chili pepper. Or maybe ten, and was a little too thin and liquidy for my taste. I thought it was a mild vegetable soup. However, the bamboo curry is a typical Nepalese dish that is made from a base of potato soup. No wonder.
Alu gobi and chana are also vegetable dishes familiar to me from my culinary tours of India via local LA restaurants. Alu gobi was delicious, though slightly different in flavor and appearance from other gobi aloos. It actually looked less aggressively spiced because it wasn’t as bright in color as others, but tasted stronger, though I am not sure what herbs and spices go into gobi aloo to begin with. I also tasted the chana, chickpea curry. Like the bamboo curry, somewhat thin and liquidy for my taste, but not bad to eat at all.
The highlight of the meal was actually nothing from the buffet, but our order of steamed momos. Momos can also be pan-fried, and be made vegetarian, called brahmachari, though I am not sure whether this is the official name of vegetable momos, or a menu name given by the restaurant. Everest momos are made with chicken or yak, though ordering yak more than doubles the $6 price to $15 for 10 pieces. Yak momos for high-rollers only.
Momos are where Chinese influence of technique comes in. The small, round dumplings look very much like plumped up version of xia-long-bao (juicy dumplings?), twirled and pinched off to a Hershey’s kiss tip. The pastry is thicker though, and the filling, though familiar in some of the ingredients, different in its subtly Indian flavor. No dip in soy sauce for the Nepalese dumpling. The momo gets a generous dollop of aachar, a mildly spicy tomato chutney. I could have used a squirt of sriracha myself *sacrilege!*, but all of it tasty nonetheless.
The buffet has rice pudding for dessert which I only wanted to taste to say I did. It was cold (it’s supposed to be, I know), the rice was hard, and it tasted too much like plain old milk. Good thing I didn’t love it, since I felt like a fat little momo after the lunch anyway.
Katmandu Kitchen was a good introduction to Nepalese cuisine. It isn’t much different from Indian, but it’s not as spicy in terms of heat. Don’t they want to keep warm with hot foods up there in the Himalayas? *shrugs* I suspect I may need to determine which dishes and condiments are aggressively spiced with chili peppers and I’d still like learn more about its subtle nuances in flavor and technique. Since I’m going continue exploring for more Nepalese restaurants, I can still leave that last line on my resumé as is. Besides, I’ve never tried...West African ;)
10855½ Venice Boulevard (@ Midvale)
Los Angeles, CA 90034