Opened just 3 months ago, Tawa's Nepali Hut is fast becoming famous in the local community. The restaurant, tucked into a tiny store shared with a dosa shop, is primarily run by a single older Nepali woman, with help from a man with a better grasp of English. Her wrinkled, world-weary face exudes a genial friendliness. Catering to a wide range of tastes is a thought that hasn't crossed her mind. As she told my Nepalese companion, "We're not interested in making money. Our sons are making money. We want to honor the peasant food."
Meals are primarily served from the steam table, with some seasonal variation; whatever the time of year, earthy tones of browns and yellows dominate. The offerings are not extensive, with an emphasis on the cuisine of the Newar, Nepal's fifth largest ethnic group. In addition to a couple standard street food items (bara ($3) and alu dum ($3)), there are a few thali rice platters thrown in for good measure. With various dishes making use of similar sets of ingredients, the menu is more like a collection of folk standards, the food improved by an intelligent mix of spices. Several are linked by the sweet-and-spicy dynamic; others emphasize salt. More rely on prodigious quantities of turmeric. Ginger makes a particularly strong showing.
Patrons spoke of their pride in the kitchen's integrity, nothing changed or diluted to satisfy American tastes. While there is an inevitable Indian influence evident to the palate of outsiders, natives protested their cuisine's uniqueness. One such advocate was a middle-aged man, a cook at a nearby hotel, who declared the kitchen's offerings "original Nepali food." Though he lives in Long Island, he makes the trek to Tawa as often as possible—"because I love my food."
Though the presentation may not be much to speak of, the quality of the food is noticeably better then at other nearby, more expensive haunts. From these, however, there are a few noteworthy highlights. Chief among these is the qeema bara ($4), a light brown pancake of lentils ground and then fried flat (traditionally in ghee butter, but here in oil) cooked with intricately spiced chicken keem. It doesn't take more than a couple bites to reach the ground meat—enhanced by garlic, onion, ginger, peppercorn, and some Nepalese spices—but you'll instantly find yourself wishing for more, a whole plate's worth. The soft texture offers a pleasant chew, tasting so good it disappears quicker than you'll think.
Nearly as excellent are the delicate momo (8 beef, chicken, vegetable and non-traditional paneer for $4, 20 frozen for $8). Pearly white and glistening, the skins are not homemade but get the job done nonetheless. Inside await explosive bites of ginger-laced, onion-spiked fillings. (Garlic, cilantro, and Nepali masala round out each one.) Top dog is chicken, as juicy as it is layered in flavor. Two chutneys come along for the ride: a fiery red, dominated by the stabbing burn of roasted chilies, and the milder dark orange, lusciously sweet and tangy. Dip a dumpling and your cheeks may pucker for a moment.
There's samae baji ($5), a medley of hardened soy beans, semi-raw white squash, darkened cubes of chicken, salty and turmeric-laced black eyed peas, and granola-esque rice flak. Produced by flattening de-husked rice and then softening it in water overnight, its simplicity serves as a neutralizing counterpoint to the otherwise intense flavors. Punctuated by minor notes of heat, the dried soybeans--hardy without being heavy--crunch in a way reminiscent of popcorn kernels, though softer. The white squash, refreshing in a fruity summer salad kind of way, snaps between your teeth; the chicken, with its sweet-and-spicy profile, submits to the chew.
Options abound. There are rings of deep fried rice flour, roti sel ($1), a festival snack prepared by households in Nepal but made here daily. Resist the temptation to dip; better to savor the oily, golden crust and porous, white interior. For vegetarians, there's subzi ($3), a trio of deep brown, fried chana (chickpeas), finger-staining cauliflower and mildly spicy, creamy spinach cooked in ghee.
More substantial are the rice platters, offered three ways: vegetable thali ($7) and chicken or goat with vegetables ($8). Go for the goat, bought from a local butcher shop and cooked until the characteristic gaminess starts to fade. Vibrant and orange, the curry has a comforting quality like that of winter soups. Pour it over rice. With it comes a container of dhal--black lentils cooked down and used to flavor the rice--and sides of simple mustard greens, irresistibly soft cauliflower with potato, and a sweet, tomato-dominated mash. Each component brings something new to the table. While you can play mix and mash, it's best to let each do its own thing so as to not jumble the flavors.
Sweets are absent, although the doughnut-like roti sel does a little to quell that craving. Then again, it doesn't much matter. Tawa is smack dab in the middle of one of the city's best food neighborhoods and a feast split between two costs so little that dropping into a second destination is no big deal. A local's haunt that happens to serve fantastic food, it makes even unknowing strangers feel welcome, providing an usually clear view of a distant culture. If she's there, don't hesitate to address the cook by "didi" (sister) when you, inevitably, order more.
Tawa's Nepali Hut
37-38 72nd St, Jackson Heights, Queens 11372 (map)