Nepali Asian Restaurant

Nepali Asian Restaurant: Uttam Tamang, the manager and owner of Nepali Asian restaurant, takes careful attention to greet every customer with a firm handshake and a warm smile. After showing them to their brightly colored booths, he turns to an associate and orders in swift Nepali; a plate of perfectly formed veg momos, and pork sekwa (Nepali-style roast pork) for a group of young Bhutanese men on their lunch break.

The restaurant’s location in Pittsburgh’s Carrick neighborhood was not made at random. Carrick is a quiet, working class neighborhood located just ten minutes from metro Pittsburgh, and is home to one of the largest population of resettled Bhutanese/Nepali refugees in the United States. Carrick, with its easy access to public transportation and affordable housing proved a prime choice for immigrants looking to start again.

Carrick’s main shopping center is divided neatly in either direction – to the left stands a Rite Aid, Pizza Hut and Good Year, to the right – a grocery store specializing in South Asian ingredients, a landscaping company advertising their services in Nepali, and the new Nepali Asian Restaurant.

“This place is relatively new, I’ve only been opened for two and a half months”, says Tamang, who previously operated a local Nepali grocery store. Since opening the restaurant with his two brothers and friend at the helm, this family run restaurant has seen success with both Americans and Bhutanese/Nepalis alike. Bhutanese patrons chat in Nepali while taking turns at the buffet, filling their plates with fresh curries, red rice and daal, a staple of the Bhutanese diet. I watch Tamang move attentively, deftly, gently inquiring if patrons are enjoying their food with a genuinely friendly and welcoming air.

“Gross National Happiness”: Uttam Tamang is originally from Bhutan, a small, independent, himalayan kingdom, located at the crossroads between China and India, with a modest population of less than 1 million people. Due to isolationist foreign policy and relative size, Bhutan remains a mystery to much of the Western world. It is a country perhaps most famously known for its system of “Gross National Happiness” as an alternative to conventional measures of development. It is often touted as one of the ‘happiest’ countries on Earth. This purported happiness, however, did not emerge without great human cost.

The Bhutanese immigrants first came to Nepal as refugees from Bhutan in the 1990s, seeking refuge after an ethnic cleansing initiative led by the King Jigme Singye Wangchuck and the Buddhist elites of the royal government. His “One Nation, One People”, policy imposed mandatory dress codes, cultural homogenization and citizenship annulment laws, all aimed at silencing the ethnic Nepalese/Hindu minority, also known as the Lhotsampa. When peaceful pro-democracy protests began in response to these laws, the kingdom responded with harsh violence. A mass exodus of approximately 100,000 Lhotsampa into neighboring Nepal and the West Sikkim region of India began in late 1990.

Soon after, official camps were established to accommodate the exodus of people. Many migrants resided in those camps for more than a decade prior to resettling in another country. Many children and young adults were born in these camps – having never set foot in their ancestral homeland of Southern Bhutan.

Since 2008, the U.S. State Department has resettled more than 2,000 Bhutanese refugees directly from Nepali refugee camps to Pittsburgh and its surrounding areas as a part of the UNHCR’s Third-Country resettlement program.  According to data compiled by the Bhutanese Community Association of Pittsburgh, approximately 5,000 ethnically Bhutanese currently live in the city. Most of them are second-wave migrants – meaning legal immigrants who’ve followed friends and family members to Pittsburgh from other American cities for the same reasons immigrants landed here centuries ago: a growing job market, a wealth of educational opportunities and an established, tight-knit community. Pittsburgh, with its verdant hillsides and mountainous topography, reminds many of the migrants of the foothills of Southern Bhutan.

Overall, the Bhutanese community in Pittsburgh is a vibrant community that is steadily growing both in numbers and in influence, evident from the rows of Bhutanese/Nepali owned businesses emerging in the market district and Bhutanese community leaders being elected to local neighborhood councils. Nepali grocery stores, clothing shops and cafes line the strip malls of Brownsville road, selling all things from hard-to-find spices, saris, cigarettes, to incense and religious icons. Nepali language signs adorn a variety of storefronts, mixing in seamlessly with established American businesses. The population of resettled refugees has slowly been able to build lives for themselves that closely resemble the ones they were forced to leave behind.
Leaving the lands and farms on which they had grown oranges, rice and lentils for generations is painful for many of the migrants to recall. Many migrants, understandably, are reluctant to talk about the traumatic memories they have been forced to carry with them over many borders. Behind closed doors, fear and anxiety paralyze those who are still adapting to a country, language culture that they don’t understand.

Despite all of this, it can be said that Pittsburgh’s Bhutanese population is thriving. Bhutanese businesses have become part of the fabric of Carrick. And despite the education and language barriers, young people are getting jobs and degrees, and children are often the ones helping their elderly relatives fill the gaps of linguistic and cultural miscommunications. The Bhutanese Community Association was established in 2010, and has since provided recreational activities, community events, youth programming and ESL/civic education classes for older migrants looking to pass their citizenship tests.

Uttam is happy that his long journey home has ended in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He smiles as he recalls playing soccer his teenage years. He feels thankful that many of the people he had grown up with have all found themselves in the neighborhood of Carrick. I see light return to his eyes as he describes how a rival restaurant owner used to sit next to him in school.

“Most of my childhood friends are spread out across the country”, he explains, gesturing vaguely into the distance, “Utah. Chicago. Michigan. All different states…” His voice trails off, lost in thought.

The Food: As I walked into the restaurant, I was immediately greeted by fragrant aromas of cinnamon, cardamom, and other warming spices. It was later in the afternoon, and a small crowd of both American and ethnically Bhutanese customers gleefully chat with Mr. Tamang as he makes his rounds through the hum of it all, making sure that orders run smoothly, sharing laughs with regulars and making sure to receive each customer as they are seated into their colorful booths.  The restaurant’s seasoned chef, who spent ten years in India as a cook, is solely responsible for the array of dishes designed to please both American and Nepali palates. Day and night, he works tirelessly; delicately folding together juicy momos and crushing spices for curries. While there is an option for a lunch buffet, I opted for the menu options, each approved by Mr. Tamang himself. I ordered a plate of their signature chicken momos, Nepali-style chow mein, and a mango lassi to wash it all down.  Momos are perhaps the most famous Nepalese dish in the west, a plump, petite pocket of ground meat elevated by a symphony of ginger, coriander, tumeric, cinnamon, shallots, garlic and cardamom. Momos are the default dumpling native to South Asia; Nepal and the West Sikkim region of India. The dish bears resemblance to the Japanese gyoza and Chinese baozi in form, yet it is set apart by a unique blend of spices. These momos were spectacular specimens of the Nepalese delicacy. The thickness of the wrapper perfectly encased the the fillings without becoming waterlogged or gummy – not too thin or heavy in the slightest, but just right. The accompanying peanut tomato chutney, was a lovely mix of tangy tomatoes, creamy peanuts with a kick courtesy of a healthy dose of chili. While each dumpling is a flavorful solo act, it is the rich, spicy, flavor of the dipping sauce that creates a truly remarkable duet.

For my main course, I went for the Nepali style chow-mein, recommended to me by a few other diners. Chow-mein is a dish with which most Americans have some familiarity, one could make the argument that it has been permanently adopted under the umbrella of westernization. Incredibly popular throughout the Chinese diaspora, chow mein roughly translates to ‘stir fried noodles’. It is perhaps one of the most globalized dishes in the world, with almost every country putting the dish through a regional twist to suit the tastes of the local population. 

 Nepali style chow mein was brought into Nepal via Tibet, where it has become one of the country’s most popular fast foods, ubiquitous with the food vendors lining the busy streets of large Nepali cities such as Kathmandu. Soft noodles are tossed with an assortment of spices and fresh vegetables and herbs, creating a unique textural experience. The brown, soy-based sauce delicately covered each noodle, careful not to overwhelm the delicate flavor of cooked red bell peppers, cabbage and long beans. Garnishes of fresh green onion, chili paste, coriander leaves, lime wedges add a unique depth to the dish, as do the toothsome yet tender pieces of fried goat meat.

The arrival of the mango lassi is a welcome, refreshing sight. The creamy, sweet, and deliciously satisfying blend of mango pulp, milk and yogurt offers a wonderfully chilly reprieve from the onslaught of spice.
The menu itself is small, yet diverse, with Nepalese fare that would satisfy both picky American eaters and purists of South Asian cuisine. Americans come in as tourists looking to take a trip through plates. For Carrick’s population of resettled refugees, it is a taste of nostalgia, a reminder of a life, of a culture in flux. Migration is often described as a prolonged period of disorientation, and it is perhaps these small luxuries such as authentic, homemade food, are enough to help reorient oneself.


“The Lives We Build”: When I ask Tamang to speak more to his childhood, to put into words the arduous journey to create a home, he politely declines. “All that matters…is the life I am building here.The delicious food, vibrant sense of community, and welcoming staff at Nepali Asian restaurant make for a truly unique experience. Diners not only leave with a feeling of nourished satisfaction, but also a sense of deep peace with the world. One cannot help but think about the concept home, and community, and the complete isolation one often feels in increasingly segregated American neighborhoods and cities. Perhaps the idea of home goes beyond arbitrary lines drawn in the sand, beyond borders, beyond culture and language. Perhaps it is something, instead, that is internal: a deep feeling that we all possess. Perhaps home is something you create, slowly, over time, brick by brick, or plate by plate.

I would like to thank the Bhutanese Community Association of Pittsburgh for helping to make this article happen.

VISIT:

Nepali Asian Restaurant
2122 Brownsville Rd, Pittsburgh, PA 15210
(412) 892-9720

About the Author

Erica Hom is a writer, advocate, daughter of immigrants, hobby cook and lover of global cuisine. She obtained a bachelor’s degree in linguistics and Russian literature from the University of Pittsburgh. She works in the nonprofit field, and has a passion for helping immigrants rebuild their lives in the Pittsburgh area.

Pera Turkish Kitchen & Bar

When you walk into Pera Turkish Kitchen & Bar and speak to Sirac Ergun, you can sense his passion.  Sirac is the chef and co-owner of Pera. He opened Pera in 2017 with his brother Ahmet. They are from Sanliurfa which is in eastern Turkey bordering Syria, Iraq, and Iran.

Sirac and Ahmet’s long and winding journey to America took them first to Istanbul, where in 1998 they opened Oceans 7, a seafood restaurant with their 5 bothers. Sirac’s dream had always been to open a restaurant in the US so that he could share his traditions and culture. In 2000, with $100 in his pocket, he moved to the United States. He worked 2-3 jobs simultaneously in Italian, Turkish, and Kurdish restaurants gaining the knowledge and money he would need to open his very own. His hard work paid off! Ahmet joined him in 2011, and they opened Pera in May 2017 after working for 17 years at others’ restaurants.

Pera is named after a vibrant district in Istanbul full of enticing eateries. It is found on the site of a former Turkish restaurant that had been there for 30 years. The brothers worked hard to rebuild the restaurant from the ground up, both its reputation and the ambience. They faced a huge challenge in welcoming back the former patrons and appealing to a wider demographic. Fortunately for us, Sirac doesn’t shy away from any challenge.  He felt that his delicious food and excellent service would quickly bring customers in and back, and boy was he right!

Pera is located on Broadway in the heart of the Lakeview neighborhood in Chicago. Lakeview is a hip, yuppie area and one of the fiercest battlegrounds in Chicago for restaurants, with one located every few doors.  How does Pera survive and even thrive in this heated environment?  Sirac says, “Having so much competition just makes me work harder and have to be better than my competitors.”  He knows he has to differentiate, and does it so well.  He showers his guests with genuine Turkish hospitality ensuring that people walk in as customers but leave as friends.  His approach with his customers is to “break the ice” by leading with the magic of Turkey by bringing the sounds, scents, flavors and loves of a people whose roots go back for centuries.  His approach to food is to take the same dishes that other restaurants serve and make them unquestionably unique and exceptional.  For example, the hummus served is blended with red beets and the falafel is stuffed with goat cheese.  Although it takes longer, he chops the kebab meat by hand, yielding a far superior taste.  Sirac uses fresh dill.  He prepares everything on a daily basis. It is easy to see that living in America for the past 18 years has not dampened his enthusiasm for the food and culture of his homeland. While his family jokes that he has become Americanized, he really is a proud Turkish man bringing the best of his heritage to his grateful American diners.

The ambiance of the restaurant is instantaneously welcoming, warm, chic, and elegant. There is Turkish tile art on the walls and handmade light fixtures from Kutahya.  The white seats give Pera a clean feel.  Sirac and his brother didn’t always agree on the ambiance but Sirac is older so he usually won out as per Turkish cultural norms.  He wanted to make the restaurant kid friendly yet appealing to adults and welcoming to people of all cultures and backgrounds.  The current project is to renovate the upstairs which will be opening in May.  That space will be for private parties for special occasions, birthday parties, showers, and every type of private party.
FOOD – Presentation is really important to Sirac.  He wants the food to be as beautiful as it is tasty.  Everything is made fresh daily and is upscale yet warm and welcoming.

Appetizers (Mezze Selection) (Top to Bottom and Left to Right):

Red beet hummus:  Sirac has used a unique family recipe to make a twist on classic hummus by adding red beets. This brings a sweet flavor to the hummus and makes it stand out. Presented beautifully on a slate platter with drops of mustard. Grilled Octopus: an octopus tentacle resting on a bed of sautéed eggplant, zucchini and bell peppers.  Beyond the beautiful presentation, the grilled octopus was flavorful and extremely tender. White bean dip: blended with dill, garlic, cumin, olive oil, and paprika served with daily baked homemade bread offered complimentary to every guest. Falafel: stuffed with goat cheese served as an appetizer with a simple bed of greens and a spicy tahini sauce. Goat cheese is unique to his restaurant and not a traditional preparation of the dish. Zucchini Beignet: perfectly crispy yet moist homemade fried veggie patties with feta cheese, fresh mint and dill served with a creamy garlic yogurt sauce.

Main Course (Top to Bottom and Left to Right):

Manti: Turkish tortellini crossed with a dumpling, stuffed with mushroom. Light and flavorful, tender pasta with a light sauce – simply delicious Siramarsir:  zucchini stuffed with filet mignon, sautéed onions, and mixed herbs served with garlic yogurt and rice. The   beef and zucchini were perfectly cooked. You will see why this is Sirac’s favorite dish. The dill in the yogurt sauce highlighted  the sweetness of the zucchini perfectly. All the elements of the dish melded wonderfully to dance on our taste buds. Lamb Kebab: Sirac is really proud of the lamb kebabs.  He marinates them overnight.  If he doesn’t have any lamb that has adequately marinated the full 24-hours, he will take the dish off the menu for the day.  He wants them to be perfectly flavored and juicy. Hunkar: This was a favorite of Sultan Suleyman’s wife, Hurrem Sultan and definitely a favorite of ours.  Beef simmered with garlic and tomato sauce is served on a bed of pureed eggplant. The tomato sauce had a deeper and darker silkiness that was well matched to the bold flavor of the meat.

Dessert:

There was a wide array of hot beverages including Turkish tea, apple tea, and Turkish coffee. Turkish coffee is cooked with the grounds and served in a small cup. The teas were all served in a beautiful clear tea cup. Kunefe:  If you want a dessert with a “wow” factor, this is for you. It delivers a succulent package, wrapped in a shredded and latticed filo dough pastry, filled with the perfect portion of mozzarella. It was served on top of a gleaming pool of syrup and sprinkled with crushed pistachios. Upon further investigation with Sirac we discovered that jasmine flower is the secret weapon of this dish. This dish is simply mind blowing. Baklava: This classic dessert paired with Turkish tea combines light and flaky texture, sticky sweetness and a mild flavor similar to earl grey to produce the perfect balance of flavors. It was served with a scoop of ice cream that at first glance was vanilla but surprised the diner with bits of apricot to add complexity to the texture. The only challenge here was making room to finish it all. For an apertif we were served Raki, a Turkish anis liquor which is best had with water and ice.

Turkish Wine:

Cankaya – a light and mildly fruity white wine reminiscent of a Chardonnay. It was the perfect accompaniment to the appetizer selection. Yakut – similar to a Merlot. Not overpowering but flavorful enough to bring out the light and fun aspects of the grape.

Visit SIRAC ERGUN:

With a wonderful smile and sense of pride Sirac tells us “The dream never ends,”. He strives to open another restaurant either in downtown Chicago or Houston.  He says  “It is all about sharing – you have to grow up together to be successful”. We are so fortunate to have shared our evening with Sirac, immersing ourselves in the food and friendships of Turkey.

VISIT:

PERA TURKISH KITCHEN AND BAR
2833 N Broadway St, Chicago, IL 60657
(773) 880-0063

This article is a group effort by the following…

Boston based Chris A. enjoys dining out with his family as often as possible. You’ll often find him and his wife on bikes enjoying New England.

Edwin P. is a Southern California native techie and vintage video game enthusiast. He enjoys playing golf and going hiking in his free time.

Shilpa R. loves everything about food and lives in the best city for it. In her home in Portland, OR she enjoys eating out and exposing her 3 year old daughter to the weird but delicious tastes of this great food city.

Susie T. resides in Austin, TX but is originally from Chicago. She showed her passion for eating from infancy much to the shock of her mother and delight of her grandmother. She loves food of every kind and is determined to try as many different types of food as possible.

Ike’s Cafe and Grill

The Setting

When I first walked into Ike’s Café and Grill in Norcross, I felt as if I’d somehow wandered into my favorite aunt and uncle’s home. How I was just now visiting this not so hidden gem? As a 2nd generation Cameroonian living in Atlanta, I’d often heard that Ike’s was the go to place for a taste of authentic African fare. Upon entering the restaurant, I was greeted by the warm, rich smells and bold decor. Dark wood and gold washed walls create an environment that felt simultaneously exotic and inviting. Soft lamps highlighted pots of flowers that caught the eye and added welcome bursts of color to more intimate corners of the rooms. I immediately sought to find out more about the owner’s history.

A Taste of Home

The restaurant began as an African Foods grocery store that offered rare ingredients shipped directly from various countries in Africa. Ghanaian by birth, Ike saw an opportunity to further serve his loyal patrons and opened up the restaurant in 2013. It would be an understatement to say that Ike’s was a hit from the start. Perry Boakye, Ike’s nephew and one of the restaurant’s co-managers, explained that it was the family’s mission to serve their community with pride, hard work, and consistency.

“Ike’s purpose for opening the restaurant was to bring Africa to America so that people who love food, from all walks of life, can experience a taste of our home. No matter where you are from, there is something here for everyone.”

The space is thoughtfully designed to accommodate patrons looking to celebrate any and every occasion. Meals and drinks are served at the bar for those looking to catch a game on one of the big screen TV, or who simply wish dive elbow deep in a bowl of hearty soup. Guests are also welcome to relax in tables and booths in the dining area, a private VIP section, or the veranda outside of the restaurant.

(VIP)

“Africa” Ike’s Way

Ike’s menu offers an eclectic selection of delicious meals that serve as a flavor-based representation of Africa. Next to many dishes on the menu, guests can find the flag of the country from which the dish originated. Appetizers include Peppered Snails, Fried Plantains, Curried Goat, and the ever popular Suya.

Suya is a West African street food consisting of thinly sliced meat that is marinated in a complex mix of spices, then grilled and served on a skewer. Though the flavor of Suya varies depending on personal and regional preferences, appreciation for the savory dish is common amongst many of the countries whose dishes are featured on the menu such as Sudan, Nigeria, and Cameroon. This is largely due to the fact that in some parts of Africa, meat is not commonly available and is often considered to be a luxury.

  (Ike’s Suya)

“Africans love to eat meat!” Perry explains with a chuckle, “Suya is the most convenient way of cooking and serving meat, and our African patrons recognize that. So Suya is another way that we bring a staple African food to America.”

At Ike’s, Suya is prepared in a method similar to that of a Cameroonian street vendor. This entails slicing and grilling the cuts of beef to be served with a pepper mix on the side. Ghanaian style Suya in comparison is both seasoned and peppered before grilling and is served as a shish kabob. While this method of preparing Suya is most common, the Cameroonian recipe more easily accommodates guest who are not partial to spicy foods. Ike’s also serves a delicious Chicken Suya to further distinguish its menu since beef is more commonly chosen for this recipe. I have had the pleasure of tasting both the beef and chicken Suya and have yet to pick a favorite. Each cut of meat is tender and juicy with a light crisp around the edges from being repetitively kissed by flames on the grill. Ginger, onion, and garlic blend with a medley of herbs to create a mouthwatering experience upon the first bite. Ike’s may as well serve Suya in a Pringles can because once you pop one in your mouth, you won’t be able to stop. Thankfully, the dish is so reasonably priced that you won’t have to.

(Ayamase Bowl)

 (Banga/Palm Nut Soup)

For those with an eclectic palate who would like a truly unique taste of African, Ike’s offers a selection of native wines and beers. One such beverage is called Ogogro, a locally produced hard liquor mixed with herbal tonics and used for medicinal purposes. Another rare offering is Palm Wine, a sweet, fermented drink made from diluting the sap from date palms such as the African Oil Palm. Served in a calabash, a cup made from a dried melon or squash, the flavor is reminiscent of a hard cider with a nutty finish that is refreshing and unique.

More to Come

As Ike’s restaurant continues to draw guests with savory dishes like the Grilled Tilapia or Red Red, the opportunity for expansion becomes increasingly possible. “My aunt Ama, who actually had a hand in designing this place, is in Ghana working on opening up another restaurant.” I certainly intend to continue my patronage of Ike’s Café and Grill to get a taste of excellent service, relaxing ambience, and delicious food.

VISIT:

Ikes Cafe and Grill
1250 Tech Drive, Norcross, GA 30093
(770) 559-1579

Valerie Fuoching is an Atlanta-based foodie of Cameroonian descent.  One of her goals over the next year is to explore the greater Atlanta area one restaurant at a time…