Just up the street from where I work at The Grauer School, next to Sprouts Market, which I still call Boney’s half the time, was a Chinese restaurant for over a decade and we had stopped going. Recently we noticed a new sign for Himalayan Kitchen and were drawn in. I love food from any place with great mountains or seas.
We walked in and a beautiful young woman pulled her hands together at heart level. “Namaste,” she said with a soft smile. It was Charmala, the hostess, who wore black clothing, dark lipstick and had dark eyes and a dark, exotic mole on her cheekbone.
“Namaste,” we said.
We were seated in a simple booth with simple table settings. Traditional Nepalese cuisine is eaten seated or squatting on the floor, and food is brought to the mouth with the fingers of the right hand. We had silverware set out, and examined the décor with colorful, hand-inked prayer flags that are said to emit positive spiritual vibrations, along with photographs of the awesome Himalayas and paper lanterns dangling from the ceiling everywhere.
When I moved to Encinitas in 1991, it was hard to even find an Italian restaurant, but choices are proliferating. However, now that we were in there and hungry, we weren’t sure if Nepal was the go-to country for great food. The Himalayan part of Nepal has its own culture including groups like the Tibetan-speaking Sherpa. What did they eat? We were thinking yak butter and grainy things. Most of the world eats rice most of the time, but not a lot of rice grows in the Himalayas.
Charmala came with menus. She spoke with a heavy Nepalese accent and understood most of what we said. The menu was filled with the Himalayan classics in vegetarian, chicken, lamb and seafood versions for around $12, plus Biryani and Momo (dumplings). Spoiler alert: The traditional Nepalese yak and buffalo meat are not on the menu.
Iswari Pandey, manager/waiter, along with his brother, Ram Kandel, had previously worked at A Taste of the Himalayas in La Jolla for five or six years. He approached our table, made the slightest prostration with his head and drew his hands together giving a slight bow, the Buddhist way of purifying the mind and letting go of the ego: “Namaste.” He is from Nepal, born in Lumbini, where the Buddha was born in 563 BCE and now a World Heritage Site.
“Namaste,” we replied.
I ordered the number 21, vegetarian coconut curry and my wife ordered the chicken tikka masala.
Lentil soup came first, unordered, with a smile from Charmala true to her name. The soup, known as “dal,” is strong and rich, with a hint of curry flavor and color, and homemade. Dal is sort of their national dish, a perfect, wholesome combination of carbohydrate, protein, vitamin, mineral and fat.
Charmala’s husband and Iswari’s brother and business partner, Ram, is the executive chef. Ram learned to cook as a boy, but eventually they all left Nepal for America. They served as manager and chef, respectively, at A Taste of the Himalayas. Now they are striking out on their own up here in Encinitas.
Dinner was served to gorgeous sweet smells of the east. First, seasoned naan bread, warm, light and delicately crusty. The main courses were served in hand-hammered copper bowls, next to large bowls of seasoned, moist, basmati rice with the longest grains I’ve ever seen.
Throughout, Himalayan music sounded upbeat but meditative as though the Lord Shiva might be performing an elaborate dance to it. My wife had ordered an “8” heat level and Iswari had talked her down to a “6.”
The tikka masala seemed classic and high quality, the tomato and coriander cream sauce rich, deeply savory, complex and exotically aromatic. As an Encinitas veteran, I had considered a “7” for my curry dish, but went with the “6,” too, and it produced a gradual, spicy burn that felt right and made my mouth feel a healthy popping sensation. It was flavorful, complex and rich, and with some sweetness to it. Ginger, garlic, coconut and plenty of Serrano chili peppers are all on the short list of Encinitas “live to be 100 years old” ingredients and they combine with whatever other magic chettinad spices Ram uses to create lingering flavors that must surely have been simmering and mingling all day in the pot. Iswari explained that they use the same ingredients as back in Nepal.
Since leaving, Iswari, Ram and Charmala have not been back to Nepal. In April of 2015, a violent 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck Nepal — followed weeks later by a 7.3-magnitude aftershock — killing almost 9,000. “Since the earthquake, we know we will never go back,” Iswari explained. Immigration is incredibly controversial in our country right now, but I’m glad they are making a place for themselves right here.
We mopped up the sauce with the naan, and as we exited, Iswari gave us a slight bow with a subtle expression of reverence and gratitude that I find universal and always welcome.
Right up there with Swami’s café and Native Foods (and, of course the 101 Diner), our new Nepalese place mixes food with qualities like gratitude and the result is every kind of nourishment and some good Chi. Next time I will finish with the rice pudding.
Himalayan Kitchen is located at 1337 Encinitas Boulevard in Encinitas.
Stuart Grauer is founder of The Grauer School (1991) and has been named Rotary “Peacemaker of the Year” and an Encinitas “Legendary Local.” He writes occasional restaurant reviews.