“*awkward glance* I like our Chicken Tikka Masala…”
I don’t blame you for it, Neil (the young Nepalese server), but before we get into such an awkward conversation note, let’s backtrack to how coming to this particular restaurant all began.
One day, the Intern and I were organizing the list of all the potential restaurants to visit (or review) for the website. After filtering a fair amount of establishments, we found one particular spot in Berkeley which majority of the orders are take-out only. Scratching our heads, puzzled and decided to investigate a bit further in the matter.
Later that afternoon, unintentionally I dozed off after a long day of work and woke up from a streaming episode of Iron Chef Japan (2013 edition, the horrible remix). A rendezvous with the intern, we come to find out the place just closed for lunch. So the contingency plan was to review an alternative place and of course our luck runs dry, finding our sure shot alternative also closed (in this case temporarily abandoned).
We found ourselves in dismay and I figured why not reminisce and revisit an old neighborhood spot known for their premiere chicken teriyaki. Strike number two shortly followed, drowning in our sorrows tasting overly sweet teriyaki sauce, unpalatable japanese ‘polished’ rice and shredded remnants of lawn cuts (lettuce) on my sashimi of all things. Afterwards, we were disappointed once more when nothing suitable was open or accessible at this time, strike three. Perhaps we should cut our losses while we’re ahead?
After going back and forth, on a chaotic merry go-round within the East Bay, it only made sense to head back to our original destination. V.I.P. parking (rather free street parking) was a breeze to score in the typically crowded University avenue and we finally decided to gaze into…
For those of you unaware, I share in disappointment as this genre is one of the few ‘kryptonite’ genres of cuisine I’ve had a disdain for. After countless attempts to remain open-minded to these spicy and complex creations, my body just wouldn’t accept it by any means. The dialogues I had with the porcelain goddess were as memorable as playing Marco Polo with the last sheet of toilet paper hoping it would end swiftly. The experience was far from pretty and quite frankly I still wonder whether it was wise for me to come here in the first place. There was no turning back at this point and the intern noticed the sign read ‘CLOSED’ and again we wondered to ourselves briefly what our luck has become for the duration of this day. The worker quickly fixed the sign and sure enough they became open for business. The place is spacious and I believe quite a number of large banquets (can or do) happen in this facility.
The sovereign nation of Nepal (home of the Sherpas) surrounded by two countries sharing the title for high density populated areas per capita borders. At the east you have the Great Himalayan mountain range dedicated to serve as a glacial wall of majestic proportion and synonymously associated with having the tallest peak of the world Mt. Everest (*1) east of the country’s capital, Kathmandu. The entire region houses fourteen distinguished core ethnic tribes of Nepalese people (*2). Over the horizon, in an isolated corner of South Tibetan monks who also share in the grandiose azure backdrop. Comfortably flanking Nepal’s Southern borders, the Northeast Corner of India holds the other half of the fence. Reinforcing the country’s stable immigration policies that a tiny fraction of its population circulates between Nepal and India along with the Burmese and their Middle Eastern cousin of Saudi (holding the #2 and #3 spot respectively) (*3-3.5). A final interesting note, as noted Wikipedia footnote (via Foreign Affairs article Authored by Robert Kaplan), briefly mentions the possibility of the next (reincarnated) Dalai Lama being discovered in Nepal being very likely despite the naysayers within the Chinese Government.”
**End Historical Background**
Sitting down in the dining area, they handed all of us menus. For a split second I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me. Every single one of our menus were different and discovering such inconsistency only made for a more perplex situation. After a few minutes my girlfriend made a keen observation and noted certain pages mismatched and insisted they were identical. My eyes glazed over the usual Indian fare; Chicken Tikka Massala, Paneer, Samosas and more. We asked about the Nepalese side of cuisine and sure enough they came through with a second set of menus (talk about secret menu status).Sure enough, I wasn’t surprised when I saw a lot overlap between Nepali and Indian cuisine with an exception of a few items. Our waiter Neil was underage and when we inquired about popular items at this place, soft spoken and felt a little under pressure, Gopal the restaurant Manager decided to take his place and suggested the following items:
Starting off with the poppadom, consisting of lentils and cumin accompanied with two standard Indian sauces: The first being Mint Chutney and the second one was Tamarind. The poppadom was a vegan friendly version of potato chips, thin and earthy in flavor with a nice crispy finish. When dipped in the mint chutney, the leafy puddle of herbal greens and hidden citrus made for a spicy salute. The tamarind on the other hand had a bit of more stage fright, initially sweet, the flavors sort of disappear into the shadows. After chips and dip, I got my first encounter with Mango Lassi. Compared to the savory counterpart (which only has spices and yogurt), the Mango added a subtle tang to the flavor profile. The thickness procured from the yogurt being whipped thoroughly and the little notes of turmeric tap dancing on the tongue; this was a good start to being reintroduced into the spice trade. The beer took us by surprise, Premium Taj Mahal. Now another virgin moment in the mix, the closest thing I had to Indian beer was a standard I.P.A. from any of the usual suspects of craft brewery.
According to my co-worker, this was a popular beer back home so I had to see the hype. My girlfriend who isn’t even fond of Beer (despite her Germanic heritage) enjoyed it as such. My thoughts on it: the hops had a bit of a spicy kick to it. What I mean is the hops (unlike most of my American IPAs) are usually pretty bitter and hoppy for the duration of the consumption. This beer however had a consistency of a lager and those hops exploded with flavor as if an Indian Royal Guard were to use an elephant and used their trunk to snipe you with curry powder. The small plates began arriving at the table, the starter (familiar to all) is the samosa. Majority of the world, whether it’s China or Mexico, has some sort of deep-fried treat in a triangular mold. For the Chinese it usually resembled pot stickers, with the Mexicans (and their Latin counterparts) Empanadas come to mind. With Indians (and Nepalese) the Samosas are the ones that shine. No frills, deep-fried exterior crust with ground beef stuffed dead into the hollow airy center.
The salad shown as a carpet garnish untouched (at least from my end). Our original order was vegetable however despite the mix up we still finished it anyway. Next up lamb Momos (in this case, chicken and lamb). They are essentially Nepalese dumplings, very similar to steamed pot stickers from the Chinese. Standalone wise, I prefer the gaminess of the Lamb as opposed to the blandness of the Chicken. Pairing the Momos with the assigned condiment consisting of Himalayan spices and Szechuan Pepper paste, brings them to another level. The chicken’s flavorless void is now filled with pepper paste and the lamb taken to a higher level of flavorful spice. Last but not least, an essential Kathmandu Street Food dish called Chicken Chhoila. The entire cherry-popping Himalayan experience wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t get to try this dish. We already missed out on ordering (or sampling) the beef Momos, Dalbhat Tarkari (rice, lentil soup and veggies) and even Kheer (rice pudding of sorts). The first bites of the Chholia were divine, the texture of the shredded chicken combined with the earthiness of the mustard oil and zest of the lemon (marrying with the red onions) made for a nice melody.
Toss in a few ginger, garlic and some Nepali spices and you got yourself a flavor profile fit for Vishnu. Four dishes later we were all full, no more says the blogger who was skeptical into believing it would turn out into a mud race to the bathroom. The experience had a few bumps but I wanted to learn more about this place. After paying our bill and thanking the manager, we departed home. A couple of days later, I returned to the restaurant to get a bit more insight as to why he wanted to start his business here in Berkeley and he shared his thoughts with me over some Chya (Nepal’s way of spelling Chai Tea). During the interview he remarked how much of India shared the manuscript (writing format) and values many Indians had; therefore, it was natural for him to maintain the Indian side to this place. What also reinforced the centralized theme of offering Indian dishes was his restaurant background in Boston, Massachusetts where he first learned how to prepare every creation one by one. Gopal then directed the conversation to the use of certain Nepalese spices (most obviously): cumin, coriander and turmeric. Soon fortune smiled upon him when one of his Indian friends (who previously owned the current location) decided to move back to Texas and gave him the opportunity to lease the place himself.
He even suggested a very exotic one entitled Azwaan (pronounced ah-ju-an) used only during post-pregancy and retains some medicinal properties according to his mother. Native to the Sherpa tribe I asked him if I were ever fortunate enough to ascend Mt. Everest, would he assist me in doing so, given his background; he merely replied with this colorful response,
“I’ll drive you up to the entrance but… not all the way *heartily laughs*”- Gopal, Owner of Chulo
His charismatic aura is natural despite the difficulties of enunciating certain English words; the Bean town Veteran gets his point across as I continue to peg him with one question to the next. He then prided himself in stating, “I dared it,” meaning he wanted to bring a more unorthodox variety to the table when it came to Indian/Nepalese culinary foreplay. Within his seven month residency he provided customers a taste of pumpkin curry and even his crafty approach of preparing mustard greens (the way he remembers it) Nepalese style. His lunch buffet variety changes on the whim of the local farmer’s market, driving to which ever one he can to find the freshest ingredients. A man who believes in sustainable, organic and non-refrigerated food as interesting. Keeping his wife out of the kitchen and encouraging the dialogue of chef apprenticeship in his homeland cuisine he confided in me and said,
“I do quality control and I put 110% in the effort of the food…Good things take time, not like iPhone or Facebook.”-Gopal, Owner of Chulo
Less than a year and I know deep down he really wants to make it work. He acknowledged to me there are still some quirks in the restaurant that need some adjustment but he is doing his best to change that. There’s no denying when someone puts their heart and soul into something they love, you can’t fake the funk as they say. I feel the same way with my goals in life and what I want to accomplish despite naysayers and any obstacles that barricade me. Gopal is digging deep in his roots and the canals of his cerebrum to bring out the best in Nepalese cuisine, I hope he succeeds in doing so.
As for me, my final thought about this entire experience and life thus far stems from a Top Chef Masters episode quoting from Chef Jonathan Waxman after being given a depressing combination of Burnt Sienna and Avocados he recalls the root definition of a restaurant is to “Restore one’s spirit.”
All I can say is, “When will I get to restore my own?”
Chulo (Authentic Nepali & Indian Cuisine)
2160 University Ave.
Berkeley, CA 94704
(*1) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Everest; last updated 30 May 2013; last viewed: 2 September 2013
(*2) http://www.everestguides.com/nepal/ethnic-groups-in-nepal.php; last updated unknown: last viewed 2 September 2013
(*3) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_Nepal; last updated: 1 September 2013; last viewed: 2 September 2013
(*3.5) http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/66205/robert-d-kaplan/the-geography-of-chinese-power; last updated: Circa 2012; last viewed 2 September 2013
(Author’s Annex: As always Wikipedia articles serve as general knowledge recaps and isn’t taken as hard evidence of factual quotes or accurate calculations, However footnote reference links/articles may serve as reliable sources depending on most recent update (one year of relevance) and/or multiple cross referencing from other scholarly journals or independent media sources).