THE HIMALAYAN CAFÉ OFFERS TRADITIONAL NEPALESE AND INDIAN CUISINE
article by VANELIS RIVERA | photography by KELLY MOORE CLARK
The Himalayas are the most revered mountain range in the world, probably because they are home to Mt. Everest, the world’s highest mountain above sea level. China, by way of Tibet, borders the northern slopes, while a small sovereign nation of about twenty-eight million people skirts the southern border of the range. The capital city, Kathmandu, may ring a bell, yet the country remains unfamiliar to many but not for the Warhawk community, which has embraced students from Nepal for years. At the University of Louisiana at Monroe (ULM), a sizable Nepalese community has flourished, so much so that The Nepalese Student Association has become one of the largest student organizations at ULM. For some time, the organization has introduced exciting cultural events and programs to the campus. Now that spirit of fellowship extends beyond the university community to Northeast Louisiana thanks to the Himalayan Cafe, which offers traditional Nepalese and Indian cuisines so delicious that it may entice you to travel to the South Asian country on your next vacation destination—well, after the pandemic.
Subash Khadka, owner of Himalayan Cafe, began working in the United States around 2007, two years after receiving his Bachelor’s Degree in Hotel Management from a university in Nepal. His work led him to New York, where he gained experience at an Indian restaurant. Louisiana became his next destination when one of his family members decided to open a line of convenience stores. The first store opened in 2009, and by 2014, they had expanded to Columbia, Louisiana. Close to Monroe, Khadka would often travel the area, and he frequently imagined adding dining diversity in the area. He was already well acquainted with the ULM Nepalese students because some helped at his convenience stores and also because he had attended a few of their on-campus events. Khadka sought advice from them regarding the Monroe area. The initial opening in December of 2019 was a small-scale operation with a limited menu that provided only takeout and made use of Facebook and Google pay. The scaled-down restaurant served them well, and by focusing on a menu previously untapped in the area, it quickly resulted in a large Facebook following and stellar reviews: “Himalayan Cafe is our favorite restaurant in Monroe. We have eaten at many Indian restaurants throughout America, and at two Nepalese restaurants near Cleveland. Himalayan Cafe tops them all!”
Though Nepal’s cuisine is influenced by North Indian flavors thanks to their shared border, Nepalese cuisine is distinct, particularly because it takes savory cues from Tibetan and Chinese cooking. A melting pot of sorts, spice blends are paramount to each dish. Commonly used herbs and spices include the usual: cumin seeds, cinnamon, cardamom, black pepper, ginger, and garlic. But then, there are the more particular, like Szechuan peppers (hailing from southwestern China), fenugreek seeds (an herb similar to clover), ajwain seeds (commonly used in Indian spice mixes), and Himalayan aromatic leaf or jimbu (a Nepalese herb belonging to the onion family).
The Himalayan Cafe menu is designed like a tour of the country. On the appetizer list, Bhatmas Sadhekoo—roasted soybeans mixed with onion, ginger, and spices—is a tasty start. It is a traditional Nepali dish, a must-have for vegetarians and non-vegetarians. Nepali-style fried fish is listed as Malekhu Ko Machha Tareko, a “small fish” deep-fried with Nepali spices. You can liven up your pre-meal chow with Khasi Ko Sekuwa, spiced goat skewers, or Taas, boneless goat marinated in herbs and spices then slow-cooked in a “special pan.” Though each appetizer’s description sounds scrumptious, customers truly can’t get enough of the momos. The five selections of Nepalese-style dumplings can easily become a full meal if you are up for the momo challenge. BayouLife’s favorite is the C Momo (Chili Momo), fried dumplings cooked in spicy tomato sauce with cut vegetables and curry leaves. Jhol Momo refers to steamed dumplings placed in a bowl of soup, which is most commonly served during the winter season, so load up! Some customers have even claimed withdrawals from momos if they stay away from the restaurant for too long.
One of the most fanciful dishes on the menu is under the Thakali Thali listing. A staple of Nepalese cuisine, this picturesque meal is served on a large copper plate with several food items—vegetable curry, yellow lentils, and spicy pickles—sectioned around a tightly formed mound of Basmati rice. Himalayan entrees are served with Basmati rice and papadum, a thin and crispy, North Indian flatbread. The three options are stew-like dishes, cooked in region-specific styles. The Gorkhali Chicken has interesting ties. The term “Gorkha” refers to both soldiers of Nepalese nationality, as well as a kingdom in what is now western Nepal. The dish itself is boneless chicken cooked with Himalayan herbs and spices, cooked “Gorkhali style.” The Lekali Khasi Ko Masu may be a mouthful to say, but it is worth the order: a bone-in goat cooked in Himalayan spices. On the Indian-side of the menu, customers will see a few recognizable entrees like Chicken Tikka Masala (cubed chicken, cooked in a tangy, tomato cream sauce), Chicken Tandoori (chicken pieces marinated in lemon juice, yogurt, and aromatic spices, and then grilled), and Butter Chicken (chicken cooked with cream, tomatoes, cashew nuts, and a pinch of honey). Balance the spices with one of three, or all, of their desserts. Each of these milk-based desserts is rich and aromatic: the thick and creamy rice pudding, the warm and sweet Gulab Jamun, and the thick cheesecake with a crust, Ras Mala. Just the right amount of sweetness can be found in the Mango Lassi and Plain Salt Lassi. Both drinks are yogurt-based, but unlike the mango, the salt lassi is less sweet and has a savory, tangy edge.
“I’m from the capital city,” says Khadka. He explains that the restaurant’s menu is a direct representation of his upbringing, which aims to honor the cultural fusion of the city, namely its Tibetan and Indian mashup. “We are like this, in between of everything,” he says. Kathmandu is also a meeting of different worlds. Khadka mentions that in the city, Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, and Muslims all live alongside each other. “We celebrate Christmas. We celebrate Buddhist festivals. So there is no religious difference for us,” he adds. Himalayan Cafe has become a mini-cosmos of the cultural crossroads that Khadka grew up in. Many first-time customers ask where Nepal is located, curious about the culture and lifestyle of the nation. Khadka is happy to oblige anyone’s questions, as he enjoys learning about cultures outside of his own. “I like whenever they ask me, and I tell them all the stories,” he says with enthusiasm. Aside from his American clientele, Khadka has spoken to customers from China, the Philippines, Peru, and Argentina. Many of the ULM international students walk through his doors, some from Germany and some from the Netherlands, further expanding the cultural exchange, one that organically unfolds with sharing food.
Himalayan Cafe boasts a pleasant ambiance that patrons have described as “cozy.” An entryway table displays Buddhist accents: on the wall hangs a canvas of a praying Buddha with a floral background and on the table sits a seated Buddha with a wood-carved Aum symbol (a spiritual recitation). The restaurant layout is simple. Square cafe tables are arranged for small and large parties, and black cloth-covered chairs are decorated with red satin bows, a nod to the predominantly crimson red Nepali flag, a symbolic color of its people’s brave spirit. “Owners are friendly and they’ve also got decent space for family events and gatherings. Live music sometimes is a bonus,” raves a customer, referring to the spacious stage at the front of the restaurant, where guitar-savvy Nepali students have been known to perform.
“I would like when [customers] come that they try a lot of other foods,” says Khadka, confident that once Northeast Louisiana gets a taste of Nepal, they won’t mistake it for Indian food. Online reviews are already proving that: “This was my first time trying traditional Nepalese cuisine, and I was not disappointed.” Another customer makes note of another Himalayan Cafe asset, the staff: “Fantastic food paired with great people makes the perfect combo. The food is always delicious and you get interesting flavors and combinations not found anywhere around here.” Many other reviews thank the wait staff by name, praising their friendly demeanor and how informative and enthusiastic they are about the menu.
Ultimately, Himalayan Cafe is an opportunity to engage with a part of the world you otherwise would never consider. From Nepal, with love is every dish’s postscript.
Himalayan Cafe is located at 3600 Desiard Street in Monroe. It is open Monday through Thursday between 11 AM to 9 PM, Friday through Saturday between 11 AM to 10 PM, and Sunday between 11 AM to 8 PM.