Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Tibet Nepal House

When my brother said he wanted to have dinner at Tibet Nepal House to celebrate his birthday, I had conflicting emotions. Obviously it was his birthday meal, so if that's where he wanted to go, I was all for it. But I had eaten at Tibet Nepal twice many years ago, and both times it was the slowest service I have ever had in Pasadena (not counting a meal at a now-gone sushi restaurant where I waited an hour before inquiring where my food was, only to be told by the not-too-bright waitress that she had forgotten who had ordered the dish so she threw it away).

On both of my trips to Tibet Nepal House it had taken more than an hour and a half to receive my food, despite the fact it had not been crowded either time, and on one of the occasions there was only one other table occupied in the restaurant. (Both times, however, I must admit that the food was delicious when it finally arrived.) My brother assured me that these days he visits the place at least twice a month and he has never had a problem.

We all met there in the evening. My brother's birthday isn't actually for another week, but he's going to New York City for the release party for a book in which a chapter is about him. So we decided to go out to dinner a few days early. We sat under Tibetan Prayer Flags and paper silhouettes of feet with hand-written messages. The smell of the place was amazing, and I turned my attention to the menu.

The menu is slightly incongruous with your typical American restaurant (this is not a complaint) but it's not too hard to figure out. Elizabeth and I decided to get a couple entrees to share.

My dad ordered a Tibetan butter teapot. My brother took a sip of it and made a face I have only seen him make once in his life: when he tried a disgusting pile of Chinese noodles in Northern Ireland, the single least appetizing dish I have ever seen.

"That's terrible," he said, simultaneously looking as if he might laugh or puke. My mom tried the tea next and made the same face.

"I'm not exaggerating," she said, "that is the worst thing I have ever tasted."

So I had to try it next. Expecting the worst, it was not that bad, but the butter tea had a harsh, pasty flavor to it that was not pleasant. Have you ever used a bamboo steamer in a wok and noticed the slightly-foamy water than gathers near the base? I've often wondered what it would taste like; I imagine exactly like this.

My drink of choice for the evening was Himalayan Blue, a lager from the base of the Himalayas in India. It is pale gold, looking like a Budweiser though tasting much different. It is silky with a touch of hops and goes very well with the spicier foods of the region.

Elizabeth ordered a Sprite, which took more than fifteen minutes to receive. I'm not going to lie, this worried me slightly and I wondered how long it would take to get our appetizers.

Fortunately, it wasn't too much longer. The food started coming out just a couple minutes after she received her Sprite. Elizabeth and I got an order of cheese pakora to start. It was good - I mean, it's cheese battered with flour and fried - but not great: the cheese was barely warm in the center, gummy and mostly flavorless. The mint/cilantro sauce was a nice complement to it.

Someone ordered sabjee pakoda - deep fried veggies battered with chickpea flour and spices. These were excellent and I helped myself to two of them. I wished we'd had two orders of these instead of the cheese.

There was also an appetizer of maasu mo-mo: steamed lamb dumplings. I'm not a big fan of lamb but these were very good, juicy and flavorful. Steamed dumplings loaded with meat are always a risk in my opinion, far too often the dough is not steamed long enough and too doughy. These were done almost perfectly.

My brother got a big bowl of soup. I did not try any but he ate all the meat and veggies, leaving only a fair amount of the broth behind. 

My mom ordered the "House Specialized Platter," a clay oven-roasted plate of chicken, lamb and shrimp. I took one of the shrimp to share with Elizabeth. Of all the things I ate this evening, this was by far my favorite: a moderately-spiced, meaty piece of shrimp as good as any I have ever had. I will certainly order a plate of these shrimp for my next meal at Tibet Nepal House. No question.

One of the entrees I ordered for Elizabeth and myself was a machha - shrimp cooked in a creamy curry sauce with Himalayan spices. But when the order arrived it was not shrimp, it was salmon. I looked at the menu: the shrimp is called "Masala Jhinge Machha," the salmon is called "Masala Machha." Although I said to the waiter "shrimp," I believe I may have pointed to the salmon on the menu when ordering.

I accept responsibility for this. It's not like I ordered chicken and pointed at the steak on the menu at Denny's. I imagine in a restaurant like this a lot of people simply point at the menu when ordering as opposed to trying to pronounce the items.

And besides, we both like salmon. Not only that, this was still delicious. (Of course, after trying the shrimp off my mom's plate, I could only imagine how nice this curry would have tasted over shrimp. Oh well.) The salmon was cooked perfectly and the curry sauce was some of the best I have ever had.

There were plenty of chicken choices but we had looked at a review of Tibet Nepal House in the afternoon and decided that the Kathmandu Sekuwa - chicken marinated overnight with mint, Himalayan spices, and cilantro - was a good option. And it definitely was. The chicken was moist and bursting with flavor, slightly charred in a few spots. This was my second favorite dish of the evening, and even after sharing the plate, we still had a couple pieces to take home.

One of the things I was considering ordering was the yak mo-mo. But my dad ordered that. I was hoping he wasn't still furious with me for the too-thin meat patty I had cooked him the night before (okay, maybe "furious" is an exaggeration) and would give me one. He did.

I drizzled some of the spicy sauce over it. It was delicious: juicy, not at all gamey, it reminded me of a great juicy dumpling at a dim sum restaurant, that smooth taste where you can't place all the flavors, you just know they are delicious. 

After I was done with all the meat I was going to eat for the evening, I grabbed a few of the onions off the warm plate and ate them. My brother's friend, Nick, mentioned that the onions are great with the curry sauce and a touch of the spicy sauce. That was all I needed to hear: I dredged a few onions through the curry, drizzled the hot sauce on top, and took a bite. He was right, this is a great way to eat them. I believe I ate a whole pile of such onions in just two bites.

This trip to Tibet Nepal House was much, much better than my previous two. The food was very good - although other than the shrimp I would not go so far as to call it great - and the service was much better. We were in and out in under 90 minutes, meaning, amongst other things, that the parking was free.

I did not plan on ever returning to Tibet Nepal House - as evidenced by the fact that my last two meals there were more than seven years ago and I have gone out to dinner hundreds of times in Old Town since then - but after this meal I have to say I would be glad to return any time someone else wants to. It may not be until my brother's birthday dinner next year, but I promise I won't try to convince him to go to Hooter's or Taco Bell like I did this year.


Banana Wonder said...

I went to the Tibet Nepal house once for yak and was totally not impressed. You are so right about the yak not being gamey... not to mention boring. Good to know they are coming around and now make do-over status in your book.

JustinM said...

Back in '04 I had the yak - and I was very unimpressed as well. So I went for the chicken and salmon this time. But the yak in the dumplings was juicy and with the dumpling skin and sauce I enjoyed it.

Anonymous said...

I want naan of that! Just kidding, it looks awesome! And your brother sounds like a cool dude to pick such an awesome place!

JustinM said...

He is not. But then again he gets chapters of books written about how him and I write a blog about McNuggets for 14 people.

Patrick said...

Correction, 15.

Liz said...

I was pretty impressed with Tibet Nepal. Although, I guess my expectations were not incredibly high having heard your prior experiences. But the food was delicious and I definitely want to go back and try the shrimp!

Cafe Pasadena said...

I'm glad you had a positive experience at the TNH. Either you or TNH must've changed over the years!

If waiting is a problem, order their self-serve AYCE buffet next time. Just like Indian buffets since they border each other.

JustinM said...

There is no question I have become more patient in the last 7 years, but there is also no question that the service was much, much better on my third trip than the first two.