Head for the Himalayas: 5 Nepalese and Tibetan Restaurants in the Bay Area to Know

A plate of chili momos at Himalayan Pizza and Momo (Trevor Felch/KQED)

Of the dozens, if not hundreds, of dumplings styles from around the world, momos certainly have one of the most fervent followings in the Bay Area. Whether they’re compact, juicy ones filled with turkey or meaty, doughy variations packed with tender lamb, local diners sure love their momos. They are really the perfect introduction to the very exciting, not particularly well-known cuisine of the Himalayas.

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Any glance at a Himalayan restaurant menu will yield familiar sounding dishes from neighboring countries India and China, especially the western parts of China like the Xi’an, the Sichuan region and the Muslim-heavy Xinjiang region. Naan accompanies meals as often as rice or lentils, and Thali platters frequently are the style of eating lunch.

Curries form a huge part of Nepalese and Tibetan cuisines, though generally they manage to be lighter in most cases than their Indian counterparts from not using as much butter, ghee or cream. Meats are often grilled in tandoori ovens, with lamb and chicken being the most frequently used for that (and chicken is probably the most popular in momos).

Clearly, there is lots of overlap, which also explains why many of the local Himalayan restaurants are also Indian restaurants that have a special section of the menu devoted to specialties from Nepal.

The Bay Area doesn’t have a huge population of Nepalese immigrants but it does have a sizable one, roughly 5,000 in 2015 according to the Pew Research Center. That number is easily tripled or quadrupled when also factoring immigrants from Tibet and Bhutan, which share a pretty similar culinary heritage (which is why many restaurants say ‘Himalayan cuisine’). The total figure of Nepalese relocating in the Bay Area also saw a significant uptick after 2015, the year of a tragic 7.8 magnitude earthquake that killed over 9,000 people.

Many of the Bay Area’s Nepalese and Tibetan restaurants started from the same root: the chef was a chef back home and realized there wasn’t much of their home’s food in the Bay Area. Slowly but surely, that number of options to sample the cuisine is growing. Nepalese restaurants centers on three main areas (Solano Avenue in Berkeley and Albany, Bernal Heights and the Tenderloin) but can increasingly be found all over the Bay Area.

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Tibetan restaurants are much harder to find or have a couple dishes folded into the menu at a Nepalese restaurant. Nearly all of the restaurants go to extreme levels to make everything homemade from grinding the spice to momos to noodles for soups. The pace is wonderfully relaxed because everything is made from scratch, the quality is high and the welcome is always very gracious.

Enjoy this Berkeley and San Francisco tour of Nepal and Tibet’s wonderful cuisines!

Bini’s Kitchen

1001 Howard St.
San Francisco

Eight momos and the open kitchen in the background where hundreds of momos a day are prepared at Bini’s Kitchen
Eight momos and the open kitchen in the background where hundreds of momos a day are prepared at Bini’s Kitchen (Trevor Felch/KQED)

There certainly were several Nepalese restaurants in the Bay Area before Binita Pradhan started making momos in San Francisco seven years ago, but it’s fair to say that this La Cocina graduate has had the greatest single influence on making our local region more knowledgeable about Nepal’s cuisine.

Pradhan’s fans followed her during her opening years of exclusively catering and popping up at farmer’s market and Off-the-Grid stands. Then she added a weekday lunch kiosk by the Montgomery BART station and eventually unveiled this year’s brick-and-mortar debut for Bini’s Kitchen in a sun-filled, high-ceilinged, industrial-chic space on the ground floor of a new affordable housing building in a still challenging part of SoMa.

The restaurant’s design highlight is a mural depicting Pradhan’s culinary journey from Nepal to SoMa. For Bini, who is originally from Kathmandu and worked in the food and hospitality business there, it certainly was a long journey for her to reach Sixth and Howard. She’s a domestic violence survivor who fled west with her son from her abusive husband in Mississippi, and she has been an industry leader in San Francisco for hiring women in the same position as her.

The turkey and vegetable momos at Bini’s Kitchen in SoMa
The turkey and vegetable momos at Bini’s Kitchen in SoMa (Trevor Felch/KQED)

As guests order at the counter in the restaurant, it’s hard not to notice the constant parade of momos coated lightly with burnt orange tomato-cilantro sauce emerging from the open kitchen. The momos, filled with turkey, veggie or lamb (ask for a half and half of combo of turkey and lamb for our favorite order), are the core of the Bini’s experience and they’re absolutely marvelous.

Compared to other Bay Area momos, these are much smaller and have a spiral, pleated exterior that their peers almost never have. Each two-bite (or one huge bite) momo sports the perfect dough to filling ratio, with neither dominating the other. The restaurant also offers Nepalese burritos and ledo bedo (various Nepalese curries). Unlike most other Bay Area Nepalese restaurants, Bini’s Kitchen caters to individual diners by offering “build your meal” sets with four momos and a ledo bedo atop khana (rice).

Dancing Yak

280 Valencia St.
San Francisco

‘Dhading chicken,’ goat curry and garlic naan at Dancing Yak
‘Dhading chicken,’ goat curry and garlic naan at Dancing Yak (Trevor Felch/KQED)

Goat curry is one of the key dishes of Nepalese cuisine and one of the finest versions of it in the Bay Area — lush in texture with the bone in-tact and a silky broth in flavor from ginger, garlic, tomato and garam masala —is at this bustling, hip restaurant from Nepal native (and first time restaurateur) Suraksha Basnet and chef Tara Ghimire.

The menu doesn’t veer too far towards a modern direction like the sleek atmosphere does. Dancing Yak excels at the classics like that goat curry, along with some hearty stewed lentil-and-vegetable dishes, chicken or vegetable momos, and several appetizers that either are or similar to India’s chaat snacks.

Like Bini’s Kitchen, the momos here are very compact and show a pleated dough surface tied together at the top that instantly make most diners confuse them with Chinese xiao long bao. Each vegetable momo has a lovely cabbage-based mix while the chicken ones showcase a bit more character from the poultry’s juice mixing with chives and garlic.

Along with the chicken momo and goat curry, an order of nicely charred, fragrant garlic naan and ‘dhading chicken’ (a chicken curry with similar spices as the goat one except with cilantro added) are all but necessary. That latter curry is a staple of highway roadside restaurants in Nepal according to the restaurant.

A chicken and vegetable momo platter at the Mission’s Dancing Yak
A chicken and vegetable momo platter at the Mission’s Dancing Yak (Trevor Felch/KQED)

Along with turquoise booths, purple walls and dim lighting, what’s the biggest difference at Dancing Yak compared to the other Nepalese restaurants? Just look at the giant bar on the north side of the space — cocktails. There’s an old-fashioned ‘Nepal’ where the bourbon is infused with turmeric and peppercorn., and the ‘Avalanche in Everest’ is a take on a pineapple and vodka refresher with lassi added.

Best of all is the Instagram-ready ‘When in Kathmandu’ where basil seeds adorn a rum, ginger and mint libation that is a perfect celebratory companion for enjoying with a plate of momos.

And in a few weeks or months, according to Eater SF, San Francisco diners can look forward to Nepalese small plates from Basnet’s team in the former Schmidt’s restaurant space on Folsom Street.

Nomad

1593 Solano Ave.
Berkeley

Momos are a centerpiece of both Nepalese and Tibetan cuisines, here as part of a meal at Nomad Tibetan
Momos are a centerpiece of both Nepalese and Tibetan cuisines, here as part of a meal at Nomad Tibetan (Trevor Felch/KQED)

Husband-and-wife team Jamyang Gyalkha and Tsering Lhatso have created a special destination at the Albany/Berkeley border for what possibly could be the finest momos in the Bay Area and one of the few opportunities to try specific from Tibet, where Gyalkha left as a teenager. The lamb, beef and vegetable momos are dramatically different from elsewhere — larger, more doughy, a full crescent shape, and bursting with so much juice that you run into a wonderful conundrum: they’re too big for one bite, but if you cut into it, the dumpling explodes on your hand.

The momos and other dishes are enjoyed in the mid-sized space anchored by various Tibetan art pieces, a skyglass above the center of the restaurant that’s partially covered by Tibetan prayer flags and a large square table with bench seating to the side in a semi-private room that has a stuffed lion and a panoramic Himalayan mountain painting backdrop. Of all the restaurants we visited for the guide, this was no doubt the one that most prominently featured the massive mountain range itself.

A lion gazes over the Himalayan landscape at Nomad Tibetan in north Berkeley
A lion gazes over the Himalayan landscape at Nomad Tibetan in north Berkeley (Trevor Felch/KQED)

But, it’s really the tremendously warm hospitality (Gyalkha does the cooking, Lhatso runs the front of house) that is reflected in the food and the whole experience. Noodles, dumplings, sauces — they want you to know that these are genuinely homemade and they hope you sample as much as you can. Try the fantastic thaen-thuk lamb broth with bok choy, halved ripe tomatoes and short hand-pulled noodles that has an unwaveringly deep concentration of lamb’s trademark meaty-gamey flavor. Stir-fried eggplant turns out to be a perfect combination of slightly sweet, slightly tart sauce and wonderfully tender eggplant and peppers.

Lhatso will even mention to get a side of ting-mo, a hand-rolled steamed bun somewhere between a pretzel knot and a croissant, that is perfect for scooping up broths and curries. You’ll thank her later after each plate is squeaky clean.

Himalayan Pizza and Momo

288 Golden Gate Ave.
San Francisco

Himalayan Pizza and Momo, located by Civic Center and UC Hastings
Himalayan Pizza and Momo, located by Civic Center and UC Hastings (Trevor Felch/KQED)

There’s a lot going on during a typical weekday lunch period at Golden Gate Avenue and Hyde Street, where the Civic Center blends into the Tenderloin. Stroll into this low-key oasis with a giant open kitchen right behind the ordering counter, and you’ll instantly relax.

And, you better calm down, because you’ll be told an order of the outstanding homemade momos takes 15 to 20 minutes, which might explain why so much of the business here appeared to be take-out or delivery. Pro tip: go across the street for a coffee to bring back from the quirky, excellent George & Lenny cafe.

The name mostly says it all for this year and a half-old spot from the owner of the Saffron Grill that seems so humble when you’re inside of it but actually has an enormous following across the city and beyond. There is pizza since the chef, Nab Raj Dhakal owned a pizza restaurant in Nepal and the place previously was a pizza shop. And then there are indeed momos in several forms.

A plate of chili momos at Himalayan Pizza and Momo
A plate of chili momos at Himalayan Pizza and Momo (Trevor Felch/KQED)

This is the place to see how momos can be served in different forms. ‘Jhol momo’ sort of translates the customary tomato-cilantro dipping sauce into soup form. For ‘chili momo,’ unusually giant steamed dumplings filled with an umami-heavy diced chicken mixture get sautéed at high heat, so the usually soft, slightly rubbery skin becomes crisp to the point of al dente. Then they are tossed about with a thick chili-spice based mixture and some vegetables for a pretty spectacular carbs, vegetables and meat stir-fry. Ask for some rice on the side to really absorb everything going on together in this ensemble and to cool the pretty substantial heat.

For the real experience, hang out, watch the busy kitchen prep pizzas, pastas and curries simultaneously, and enjoy.

Cuisine of Nepal

3486 Mission St.
San Francisco

Cuisine of Nepal’s signature chicken and cashew cream curry, served as a thali platter at lunch
Cuisine of Nepal’s signature chicken and cashew cream curry, served as a thali platter at lunch (Trevor Felch/KQED)

The story of this Bernal Heights Nepalese dining stalwart (as seen on Check, Please! Bay Area) literally includes climbing the Himalayas. Chef/owner Prem Tamang was a porter for trekking expeditions then eventually grew to be a lead guide for climbs, often showing ambitious American visitors how to climb some of the world’s largest peaks. All the while, he was interested in cooking his home cuisine — and brought that to the U.S., which Bay Area diners can now sample at his restaurant inside a building with funky fake house façade.

The momos here, like everywhere we went, are excellent though more on the lighter cooked side (moister dumpling skin) but make up for that with a more substantial amount of filling than others sampled on this journey. As a bonus, the restaurant is happy to let diners try all three momo flavors (lamb, vegetable and chicken) in a six-dumpling sampler.

It’s common knowledge among regulars that Chef Prem’s kukhurako ledo (chicken curry) is the star of the show at the restaurant — and they’re right. With a cashew cream base, there’s a spectacular richness-with-levity to the broth. Combined with the moist cubes of flame-roasted chicken, it’s one of those special dishes that leaves guests still saying ‘”wow” when the check arrives.

Cuisine of Nepal’s excellent momos come six to an order
Cuisine of Nepal’s excellent momos come six to an order (Trevor Felch/KQED)

When that curry is the centerpiece of a lunch set with rice, naan, salad and a particularly spicy potato salad for $8.99, you’ll understand why everyone seemed to be ordering it at the lunch hour. In present day San Francisco, it’s not easy to find such a special full meal like that for under $10.

And at dinnertime when neighborhood regulars fill the awkward-shaped long, narrow dining room that features a banquette with individual sitting mats and scenic paintings of Nepal on the walls, you’ll likely see large servings of that chicken curry anchoring almost every table, along with rare-to-find Nepalese curries based on butternut squash, mustard greens, or basil and lamb.

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It’s an extensive, authoritative menu that requires many visits to fully explore — and we’re guessing you’ll want to come back many times to do just that.

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