By dish
Himal Chuli
Ethnic Nepali
Wisconsin, United States
ADDRESS 381 State Street, Madison, WI
PHONE (608) 251-9225

An ethnic Nepali restaurant in Madison, Wisconsin, United States

One of Madison's greatest cultural assets is its plethora of ethnic restaurants. Name a continent or country with a distinct culture anywhere in the world, no matter how obscure or out of the way, and there's likely to be one if not two restaurants specializing in its cuisine.

Few could be more out of the way than Himal Chuli, literally "summit of the Himalayas." If you use the Nepali root word "chulo" instead, the name becomes "kitchen of the Himalayas."

The tiny 24-seat State Street storefront restaurant certainly looks the part. Hung with Nepali tapestries and prints and bathed in Indian and Nepali music, the casual and rough-hewn Himal Chuli couldn't look more exotic and, we presume, authentic if it was located on the slopes of K2. One almost expects to see Sherpa guides, stomping the snow off their cowhide boots, come through the door.

Himal Chuli's momochas, steamed vegetable dumplings flavored with peanut sauce and served in a tomato-coriander sauce, was named one of the nation's 75 best food buys in the March issue of Food & Wine. The mention of this unique culinary asset set us on a dining course for State Street.

We picked a table by the counter in the rear under a smiling portrait of the Dalai Lama. Service was prompt and courteous and, despite luncheon plans to the contrary, we wound up having a Nepali feast.

The menu is simple, with both vegetarian and non-vegetarian columns. The lunch specials trade heavily on varieties of dal, a mixed bean soup that's a staple of the region.

The dal that came with our meal was a viscous blend that was pea-soup green and laced with beans and onions. The spice mix in the broth gave it significant character and strength.

We definitely needed to try the momochas ($6.50), but knew those wouldn't be enough to hold us. We set a course that soon had us eating our way up a mountain of food.

We started with mango lassis ($2.75), billed as a "refreshing yogurt drink" on the menu. It was very much like drinking a much more liquefied yogurt, dressed with enough mango to give it a tropical freshness. Thinner than a malt and thicker than whole milk, the lassis were pleasant but not remarkable diversions.

We also ordered a side of whole-wheat roti ($1.25), partially leavened bread also made with yogurt. The single, saucer-sized slice divided into four wedges arrived hot and seemingly fresh from the oven. It had a wonderful flavor, presumably from the yogurt in the mix, and we found ourselves eating far too much of it.

The momochas did prove to be excellent. Four arrived in the aforementioned sauce, a light, almost watery compote laced with coriander. The dumplings themselves were filled with ground vegetables and chickpeas and enough cilantro to provide a spark of flavor.

For the main course we ordered the daily tarkara ($7.50), a stew of fresh vegetables cooked in turmeric, coriander, cumin, fresh garlic and ginger. The tarkara du jour was "Cauli," a blend of cauliflower, carrots, green beans, potatoes and onions. The vegetable chunks were large and the blend of spices formed a curry that was flavorful and interesting. The dish also came with rice (white or brown) and roti (white or whole wheat.)

Our other choice was hyala ($8.95), slices of organic bison meat blended with ginger, cumin and turmeric. Unfortunately, the bison was out of stock. Instead we ordered Beef Buff ($10.95), lean beef sautéed with green peppers, mushrooms, onions and sliced cherry tomatoes.

The beef, thinly sliced, was lean and satisfying, but the dish was less distinctive than we would have hoped. Next time we'll double-order the momochas.

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