Even if you've never eaten Nepali food before, the food at Cafe Himalaya should taste familiar. Perhaps it's a consequence of being bordered by countries whose cuisines are more familiar to us, namely China and India. Interestingly enough, the shogo momo takpa ($6.50 for 8 pieces) reminded me of nothing other than Polish pierogies. The potato and herb filling is wonderfully light, and it is only the chili sauce and shredded cabbage salad, doused with sesame oil, that mark the dish as Asian.
On the vegetarian side of Cafe Himalaya's recommended dishes is tsel khowa ($7.75), a mixed vegetable and tofu curry "cooked Nepali style" and served with fragrant basmati rice. Here the overtones are those of a Thai red curry, minus the coconut milk. There is, perhaps, too much broth, and it could use a bit more seasoning, but the freshness of the vegetables really shines through.
Another cultural mash-up is the tsel phing ($7.50). Although it has a similar sauce to the khowa, here the focus is on thick bean thread noodles and the textural contrast between the noodles and strips of crunchy cabbage. The smoky flavor of a Chinese-style wok is evident, but instead of rice the noodles are served with paratha (a layered Indian-style bread which itself bears some resemblance to a scallion pancake, minus the scallions). Like the khowa, the heat level doesn't blow you away but rises steadily.
Nepali food may not be as recognizable to us as other cuisines, but Cafe Himalaya makes a strong case for it. The resemblance to those other, well-known cuisines may help convince your friends to give Nepali food a try, but it's the fresh ingredients made to order that will keep you coming back. The extensive vegetarian menu is just a bonus.
78 East 1st Street, New York NY 10009 (map) 212-358-0160