This autumn Nepali Bhanchha Ghar (Bahn-sah Gar) became the first two-time winner of New York City’s annual Momo Crawl. Early one afternoon, more than a thousand event goers fanned out from the block-long, pedestrian-only Diversity Plaza, at the western edge of Jackson Heights, and called on dozens of nearby restaurants, cafés, trucks and carts. Each dished out at least one style of momo, a filled dumpling best-known from Tibet and Nepal.
Several hours later, after momo-crawlers had returned to the plaza and the popular vote had been tallied, Yamuna Shrestha, the owner of Nepali Bhanchha Ghar, once again proudly raised the Momo Belt high. The decorated yak-hide belt returned to its glass case, mounted on the back wall of the upstairs dining area, where it overlooks an open kitchen and a handful of tables.
On a recent morning the tables were occupied, singly or in small groups, by customers who had placed short orders with Yamuna. No one paid the Momo Belt any heed, so neither did we.
Instead we observed Yamuna’s quiet ministrations with a thali, a tray crowded with small portions of many dishes, and particularly with the accompanying sukhi roti, a flatbread that she herself rolled out, griddled and then briefly touched, top and bottom, to an open flame.
This intimate attention to detail seemed perfectly natural to Yamuna – her given name, we soon learned, is pronounced Eh-moo-nah – and to her brother, Shree, the restaurant’s chef, when we chatted in the larger, downstairs dining room. (As best we could: Like many Nepali speakers, the siblings are also conversant in Hindi, but we had to fall back on English.) Since bhanchha means kitchen and ghar, home, Nepali Bhanchha Ghar is a “home kitchen” for the food of Nepal, she explained.
Yamuna, now 50, and Shree, 45, live nearby in Jackson Heights (which is a mere 79 feet above sea level; the name, reportedly, was the invention of a real estate developer attempting to summon a touch of class). They moved to Queens ten years ago from their first home in the Syangja province of Nepal (elevation: 1,000 feet and up). To the north are the Himalayas; to the southeast, Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital; to the south, the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
Yamuna did do some cooking in Nepal – an “auntie had a restaurant there” – but from her arrival in New York in 2008, till she opened Nepali Bhanchha Ghar in 2015, housekeeping paid the bills. The long hours of work also provided a stake with which she and her business partners could open the restaurant. Today Yamuna is the sole owner but – no surprise – hasn’t freed herself from long hours. Usually she’s on the premises from 6 a.m. to midnight, day in and day out.
The restaurant conjures up “the typical Nepali taste, like my Mom’s food,” according to Deepak.
The microneighborhood of Jackson Heights sometimes called Himalayan Heights – just south of Little Bangladesh on 73rd St. and Little India on 74th – features many Nepali and Tibetan eateries but no markets dedicated to those cuisines. “Chinese, Indian and Bangladeshi groceries,” Shree told us, provide most of his fresh vegetables and other ingredients.
Deepak Ghimire (Dee-pock gih-Meer) – a younger relative of Yamuna and Shree who also works at Nepali Bhanchha Ghar, and who spoke with us separately – noted that the supply chain for a few distinctive Nepali ingredients is tenuous. For example, the restaurant still serves beef sukuti, which is often likened to beef jerky but is chunkier, less salty and less chewy. However, buff sukuti is not currently on the menu; the namesake buffalo meat is too expensive.
Even so, the restaurant conjures up “the typical Nepali taste, like my Mom’s food,” according to Deepak, who added that Nepalis from “California, D.C., Virginia and New Jersey come here and vouch for it.” We ourselves vouch for bhuttun, a spicy mélange of goat head, liver, kidney and sometimes heart, perhaps our favorite dish at Nepali Bhanchha Ghar.
Our favorite, that is, when we’re not enjoying momo. (Some folks use the plural form “momos”; Deepak omits the “s,” and so do we.) Nepali Bhanchha Ghar assembles these dumplings downstairs, at a table cordoned off from the dining room. The momo are filled with minced chicken, paneer (a fresh cheese), potato or ground beef and seasoned with the likes of onion, cilantro, garlic, ginger and celery. Each variety is fashioned in a different size and shape so the kitchen can tell them apart once they’re sealed.
Nepali Bhanchha Ghar, like most momo-makers, will serve these dumplings steamed or fried, in the company of one or more dipping sauces. The restaurant’s Momo Belt winner, however, is jhol momo, in which steamed dumplings are immersed in a sesame-laden, chicken-broth-based, particularly soupy chutney. When sharing jhol momo, we’ve been known to concede the final dumpling to a dining buddy in exchange for the last of the chutney. Against the dispiriting effects of a cloudy, chilly day, it’s an effective home remedy.
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