Aspen Times Weekly: Spice Road
IF YOU GO ...
6824 Highway 82
Gandhi India’s Cuisine Catering
Babbu Cheema: 303-589-3126
EN ROUTE from Vail last weekend with my Valentine — following a 38-hour rendezvous with visiting friends — our last stop is Nepal. Any local who’s had an unshakable craving for Indian food will understand that can mean only one thing: the restaurant located just a stone’s throw from Highway 82 on the outskirts Glenwood Springs.
For us, the allure of a mellow dining room and a vague sense of cultural rebellion are strong forces on the evening of America’s biggest sporting holiday. So instead of racing home to catch the tail end of Super Bowl 50, we make one final break on a daylong shopping and food crawl at Nepal Restaurant. We’ll gladly trade the familiar yet infrequently enjoyed flavors of Tibetan, Indian, and Nepalese cuisines for sober dissection of the halftime show.
Bold lettering on the big green awning of the Nepal Restaurant is temptation enough in our ethnic-food-starved valley. Since Gandhi India’s Cuisine in Carbondale went dark in July, this cozy eatery in the Thunder River Market gas-station strip mall is the only outlet for spiced specialties such as samosa, masala, paneer, dal, naan, lassi, and tandoori-roasted chicken, lamb, and seafood.
It’s also been under new ownership since May 2015—though not because previous owners Omkar and Sarita Lohani couldn’t cut it. Operators of the restaurant since the early 2000s, the Lohanis returned to their native Kathmandu to tend to family after Nepal’s devastating earthquake in April. Happily, they left behind family recipes perfected over the years.
Looking to our destination, we imagine ourselves as mountaineers reaching Himalayan summit and finding a lonely lodge offering sustenance for weary climbers. The dining room inside nearly fits this vision: just a couple of patrons at separate tables, and multicolored prayer flags strung from corner to corner. Instead of showing the big game, the TV near the bar displays cheeky Indian music videos with dancing, smiling performers wearing colorful silk pants.
Feeling adventurous, we eschew fallback Indian favorites (ahem, chicken tikka) for novel specialties: shrimp kawab (jumbo prawns marinated in yogurt overnight then scorched on a sizzling skillet with a tangle of grilled peppers and onions; keema naan (ground lamb stuffed inside pillowy flatbread); and chicken thukpa (Nepalese noodles in a rich, spiced broth). We order a trio of fried vegetables coated in chickpea-flour batter, including florets of marinated, curried cauliflower and crispy sweet onions.
“Nepal’s version of onion rings” resembles flash-fried baby octopus and boasts a silky spice finish that jolts our attention. Laxmi, wife of new owner Manik Sakya and our cook tonight, delivers the plate from the kitchen. On a busy night, we might not have the opportunity, so we ask: Will she share some secrets?
“What would you like to know?” Laxmi replies.
We banter back and forth for a few minutes; we learn that the chickpea flour batter on those sublimely crispy onion blossoms is spiked with fresh garlic and ginger. But it turns out she’d rather learn how we — intrepid travelers on Super Bowl Sunday — have arrived at her restaurant. When she learns we’re headed back to Aspen, she takes on the role of concerned matriarch.
“Forty minutes,” she says, before inviting us to return. “Go slow, the ice on the road…”
When we exit the restaurant after our leisurely feast—with a big bag of food, because that’s what you do when the closest Indian restaurant is nearly an hour away—we encounter another spell of road magic. I turn around to air-kiss Nepal Restaurant goodbye and spot it: Gandhi India’s Cuisine truck is parked out front. Could this be a sign of a new power couple?
“My regular customers go to Nepal [Restaurant] now, because there’s no other Indian restaurant,” says Gandhi India’s Cuisine owner Babbu Cheema. “Manik is a good friend, and he’s allowing me to use his kitchen for our festival purpose.”
The Northern India native closed his Carbondale restaurant in July after five years; he says he was just about breaking even. Before that, Cheema opened Gandhi restaurants in Denver and Breckenridge in 1995 and 1996, respectively.
Good news: He does plan to continue a 15-year tradition of catering outdoor summer events such as Carbondale’s Mountain Fair, Jazz Aspen Snowmass, Snowmass Mammoth Fest, Breckenridge Beer Festival, and the Telluride Blues & Brews Festival, among others, and hopes to serve weddings, parties, and small cooking class groups eventually. (“We have long lines all day long at these festivals, and people are requesting us to open back up,” Cheema adds.)
In May, the Lohanis sold the turnkey Nepal Restaurant to the Sakyas, fellow Kathmandu natives. Though working as a business analyst in Minnesota when he got the call, Manik has a long resume in hospitality in Nepal, Japan, and Texas. “The first time I went to see [Nepal Restaurant], I decided I’d buy it,” Manik says, laughing at the memory. The decision was that easy.
“Business is good. The recipes are quite good,” Manik says. “The old chef — Himal, who was with the previous owners for a long time — is still with us.”
Thank Ganesha for that. Manik doesn’t rule out a Nepal-India collaboration with Cheema. Instead, just as his family and friends have done in the US, he welcomes new opportunity with open arms.
“The food is very similar, the culture is similar,” Manik muses. “We have two rooms in restaurant. One is just sitting here, so maybe I’ll extend that into something different…”
Lucky for us, the journey to South Asia continues.
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