By Frank Sabatini Jr.
Only several years ago if you proposed going out for Himalayan food to family and friends, they’d look at you with crossed eyes and ask: “What the heck is it? And where do we find it?”
San Diego County today has a small handful of Nepalese-style restaurants. Three of them fall under the same ownership, with one located in the La Mesa Crossroads Plaza. (The others are in Mission Gorge and Chula Vista.)
It was only recently that I learned of Himalayan Cuisine’s lunch deal, offered from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekdays. So I quickly set out to the La Mesa outpost and came away with a full gut of spicy fare (my choosing) and a palate lingering with exotic flavors for under $10.
The lunch special is $8.99. It’s particularly attractive because you get a choice of two entrees from a select menu, plus lentil soup, grilled naan bread, and basmati rice. Based on dinner visits to the Mission Gorge location, the portions of these bargain entrees are only a notch smaller in comparison.
When chatting last year with owner Khem Kharel about the differences between Himalayan food and dishes common to its neighboring India, he noted: “Our food is lighter and healthier. It doesn’t have all the butter, oil and cream of Indian food.”
For newcomers familiar with popular Indian meals such as tikki masala and chicken vindaloo, the flavors won’t seem too alien. In fact, those dishes are among your lunch choices. But it is the spices such as green cardamon, bay leaves, cloves, nutmeg powder and others — and used in hefty measures — that will charm your taste buds.
I could smell the aromas of the food when parking 50 yards from the entrance. Upon entering, images of Mount Everest and illuminated models of Nepalese temples whisked me away to some faraway land. Black-vested waiters wearing traditional topi hats further set the mood for cuisine that nobody can accuse of tasting bland.
My entrees of choice were “chicken chilli” and chana masala, a vegetarian dish of Indian origin — both “medium spicy” by default.
The chana masala offered the strongest burn due to dried chilies hiding in a light tomato sauce, which envelopes tender garbanzo beans. It was also the saltiest of the two entrees. Had it not been for the fragrant herbs and spices somewhat counteracting the high sodium level, I would’ve sent it back.
A luscious dark-red curry sauce cloaks boneless, skinless thigh meat in the second entree. The chicken was exceptionally tender, deeply flavored, and strewn with bell peppers and onions cooked exactly to my liking — semi-soft and verging on sweet.
The pile of basmati centered on the plate carried the usual mystery that always intrigues me in Himalayan restaurants. How on earth do they achieve such fluffiness?
Some of that rice ended up in my lentil soup to bulk up the thin, but tasty broth. The accompanying two wedges of naan bread took a dunking as well, and got devoured quickly. If you aren’t counting carbs, a full order the toasty bread costs $2.45.
Other entrees from the lunch card include vegetable korma with coconut milk, mild curry chicken, and saag aloo, which consists of spinach and potatoes in a creamy sauce.
If jumping ship to the regular menu, the vegetable momo dumplings are a classic Himalayan specialty with their generous fillings of minced cabbage, spinach, cashew nuts, onions and cilantro. Lamb lovers will delight in options showcasing the meat in different herbs and sauces. And there are also noteworthy shrimp and fish dishes as well as bone-in goat steeped in curry.
Whatever your choice, the spirit of culinary exploration runs as high as Mount Everest in a restaurant that proves culinary adventure is the spice of life.
7918 El Cajon Blvd.
Lunch special: $8.99 plus tax for soup, bread, rice and two entrees (available from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday)
— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of ‘Secret San Diego’ (ECW Press) and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.