Jan. 15 2016 04:09 PM

Get momo dumplings and vegetarian kofta at this La Mesa restaurant

Lamb-momo
Lamb momo
Photo by Michael A. Gardiner

The Silk Road was the world's first darknet; a cyber black market featuring drugs, weapons and other illicit "products." The Silk Road was also the historic network of trade routes from which that cryptomarket took its name. That system of routes was best known for connecting Europe to China based on trade in spices, silk and other exotics, but it also resulted in profound cultural exchange and connected China to India. Himalayan Cuisine (7918 El Cajon Blvd., Suite B) in La Mesa offers a rare taste of the latter.

The entire course of the Southwestern route of the Silk Road can be found on a plate of Himalayan Cuisine's momo. The historic route traveled from central China down through Sichuan and Yunnan provinces, across the Himalayas and out the Ganges/Brahmaputra Delta. At first glance, those momo look just like Chinese bao (or Korean mandu). But the fillings are different, meatier. Three are on offer at Himalayan Cuisine: minced lamb, minced chicken and vegetable. The minced chicken was the tastiest, featuring hints of onion, garlic and ginger. The turmeric-laden dipping sauce reflects the Indian subcontinent at the other end of that Southwestern route.

The restaurant's most interesting dishes are the ones that highlight the diverse cultural influences on Nepalese cuisine. Take, for example, the malai kofta (meatballs featured heavily in various Arab and Muslim cuisines). As they hit India, however, they turned vegetarian and got up close and personal with curry. Himalayan Cuisineís malai kofta are paneer cheese, potatoes, cashews and spices mashed together into balls and cooked in a creamy curry of tomatoes, onions, herbs and spices. It is a vegetarian dish, yes, but the kind a carnivore can love.

One staple of Nepalese cuisine is dal bhat tarkari. It is a spiced lentil soup served over rice and accompanied by a curry and achaar, an intensely flavored pickle that hits all the notes: spicy, acidic, salty with just a hint of sweetness. In truth, there is little need for more in a meal than dal bhat tarkari has to offer.

Many of the usual suspects from the Indian Top 40 are on the menu: chicken tikka masala, tandoori chicken, lamb vindaloo, saag aloo and the like. For the most part, though, they're not extraordinary. One exception is the chicken makhani—butter chicken—a classic Punjabi dish and an Indian restaurant staple the world over. Often the butter (and yogurt marinade) overwhelms the dish, yielding a flavor profile that is rich but dull. Himalayan Cuisine's version was different, brighter with a hint of acid. Even the color of the dish shows the difference: more red, less orange.

But that Indian Top 40 is, generally, not what to order at Himalayan Cuisine. Those options may be no worse than you'd expect but neither do they tend to be better. The things to order at the restaurant are the Nepalese dishes, the ones that show the cross-cultural nature of the cuisine, the ones that show the imprint of the Southwestern route of the Silk Road. And you don't need a darknet black market to get it. You just need to go to La Mesa.

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