Just a few years ago, if you had asked me to name the quintessential exotic cuisine, odds are I’d have said Tibetan — or Nepalese, which I understood to be much the same. I had never eaten either, and my knowledge about the food was pretty much limited to an article I’d read in National Geographic, I think it was, where I learned about something called yak butter tea.
I never in my wildest dreams imagined I would ever taste yak butter tea. Or any other Nepalese or Tibetan dish, for that matter.
What a difference a few years makes. The Triangle now boasts not one but five Nepalese restaurants, four of them in (where else?) Cary. As I’ve sampled across their menus, my appreciation has grown dramatically for a cuisine that has much more to offer than yak butter tea, which I did in fact get a chance to try at Tibetan Restaurant, a Cary eatery that has since closed. Let’s just say it’s an acquired taste.
The one thing I did have right all those years ago is that there’s a lot of overlap between Nepalese and Tibetan cuisines. Turns out, not surprisingly, that they also draw heavily on the flavors of neighboring India and China.
Everest Nepali Kitchen, which opened in April in a Cary strip mall (where else?), is a fine place to explore the possibilities. The wait staff are as welcoming as the cheery dining room, which goes out of its way to make people of all backgrounds feel at home with the artwork on the walls, from a painting of overlapping American and Nepalese flags to a vintage black and white photograph of a smiling Edmund Hillary and Nepalese sherpa Tenzing Norgay, accredited as the first climbers to summit Mount Everest.
The setting is a suitable backdrop for a menu that offers a guided tour of the Nepalese culinary landscape, with frequent side excursions across the border.
Novices seeking the comfort of the familiar may want to set up base camp in India, where they’ll find comfort under the Appetizers heading in the form of pakoras (chicken or paneer), vegetable samosas and excellent tandoori wings.
Popular vegetarian and non-vegetarian entrees are also well-represented, with roughly a dozen options in each category. Palak paneer and butter chicken are standouts among a selection that ranges from aloo gobi and chana masala to lamb rogan josh and chicken tikka masala.
It’s a short climb up to the next camp, where you’ll find Indo-Chinese specialties under the Nepalese Appetizers heading. Chips chili (that’s “chips” as in English fish and chips, aka thick-cut fries) and house-made chicken meatballs Manchurian are winning variations on classic Indo-Chinese themes. Kadhai shrimp, cooked in a steep-sided wok that’s used in northern India and bordering countries, is another worthy option.
Venture a little further afield, and you’ll find a South Indian rasam soup, whose cream-of-tomato appearance belies its complex, mutton bone-enriched broth, and chicken tom yum jalfrezie, a Thai-Indian fusion dish perfumed with tropical herbs and spices. Both will richly reward your sense of adventure.
Nor, as it turns out, does the ascent to the peak Nepalese specialties present a serious challenge. Even the most timid palate should delight in exploring the cuisine’s signature dish.
No, it’s not yak butter tea. It’s momo, Tibetan/Nepalese filled dumplings. Think Chinese wonton, but with a more substantial wrapper that has a gratifyingly chewy-tender bite. Everest Nepali Kitchen offers several versions, each available with your choice of vegetable, chicken or lamb filling.
Classic steamed momo are a good place to get your bearings. Then feel free to explore the surprisingly varied terrain, from deep-fried to jhol momo (my favorite, served in a rich, spice-fragrant broth). Or throw caution to the wind and try the chef’s special momo-zza, which the menu describes as “Nepalese dumpling with cheese, onion and pepper cooked in chef’s special pizza flavored sauce. Comes in hot sizzler.” See what I mean about welcoming all comers?
Also under the Nepalese Specialties heading, you’ll find that country’s take on fried rice and chow mein, as well as chicken cashew nuts (which I haven’t yet tried) and Nepalese street noodles (which I have, and can heartily recommend; try the version with egg).
You’ll have to wander over to the tandoori section of the menu for a popular Nepalese street food dish called lamb sekuwa. Pulled off the skewers before serving, the grilled spice-marinated cubes of lamb are cooked medium-well — not the temperature currently favored in the West, but authentic. The meat is still tender, though, with a subtly exotic flavor that quickly grows on you.
Like the restaurant itself, you might say.
Everest Nepali Kitchen
212 Grande Heights Drive, Cary
Cuisine: Nepalese, Indian
Rating: 3 1/2 stars
Atmosphere: cheery and welcoming
Noise level: low
Recommended: chips chili, chicken tom yum jalfrezie, johl momo bowl, Nepalese street noodles, kadhai shrimp, lamb sekuwa, Kashmiri naan.
Open: Lunch and dinner Tuesday-Sunday.
Other: beer and wine; accommodates children; excellent vegetarian selection; parking in lot.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: 5 stars: Extraordinary. 4 stars: Excellent. 3 stars: Above average. 2 stars: Average. 1 star: Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $20. $$$ Entrees $21 to $30. $$$$ Entrees more than $30.