In Search of Yak

Unlike its Himalayan neighbor Bhutan, Nepal does not officially measure its success in terms of “Gross Domestic Happiness.” The Nepalese do, however, have a national cuisine, which may leave one feeling happy, domesticated, and, if prone to overindulgence, gross. Opportunties for such overindulgence in Chicago have recently been heightened. Nepal House, which opened in the South Loop around a month ago, offers a small sampling of Himalayan fare amidst the (seasonally) snowcapped skyscrapers south of Roosevelt Road.

I went to Nepal House with two fellow travelers. Both were born and bred Midwesterners, weaned on cheese and beer and little experienced in South Asian cuisine. The curries of the subcontinent and its northern reaches were unknown to them. This led to some distinctive conversation: “My curry is orange, but it doesn’t taste like an orange.” And: “I can’t slurp my curry down like a bowl of cereal.”

In any case, we began the evening with an appetizer, the aaluko aachar. It rang in at $9. Price was no object here–each and every appetizer costs $9, as if Maoist rebels had commandeered the menu’s opening pages. Composed of marinated potatoes underneath a clump of crispy rice, the aaluko aachar was a fine light filler for a later feast.

For mains, we strove to sample from across the menu, indulging in chicken korma, Nepali khasi, and kadhai Lamb. Although the first was standard Indian fare, the latter two are emblematic of the restaurant’s attempt to offer authentic Nepali cuisine. Kadhai lamb is a moderately spicy curry, though a more discerning palette would be required to explain what makes it unique to Nepal. Although the lamb was too tough for comfort, the spiciness and array of flavors overpowered the growing ache in my jaw. My companions and I also enjoyed the Nepali khasi, a hearty and delicious goat curry, though it was hard to say what led the menu to describe it as “festive.” The curries were more viscous than fluid–as my lanky friend ruefully pointed out, slurping wasn’t an option. To each his own. The other ordered the goat and found it littered with bones, transforming what should have been a cruise into a grisly voyage amidst marrow and hide. Fortunately, we mopped up the gory residue with exceptionally fluffy orders of garlic and regular naan, as well as a complimentary, bottomless bowl of basmati rice.

If there was failure, it was in the flow. Although our appetizer came out with the speed of a teleporting Buddha, a kern in time widened with the gap in our stomachs until the waiter brought out our entrées, quenching our yen.

But the fiscal toll of the meal was easy enough to bear. Most entrees come in at around $15, though these do vary, with vegetarian dishes slightly less and specials slightly more. The priciest meals are the combo platters, maxing out at $22 for one, and $32 for two. For those who dig dough, South Asian naan breads, ranging from plain to cheesy to garlic, are all $3 each.

As my compatriots and I yakkity—yakked across the table, it began to dawn upon me that, for all the restaurant’s Himalayan bluster, a key dish was missing from the menu: yak. The noble yak, which has long served the Nepalese and Tibetan peoples in their precipitous peregrinations, also makes for a celebrated dish. Nepalese restaurants from New York to Mobile, Alabama, have been known to offer the tallow and rind of the oft-burdened beast. Why does Nepal House skimp on such a crucial dish? How long can a house stand without a foundation or a beast of burden to carry it?

Yaks aside, the meal was wholly satisfying. Although there were hitches along the way, with a long wait time and oddities in the meals themselves, Nepal House was totally worth the trip. Chicago, for all its huffing and puffing about being a “global” city, has long lacked contact with the good denizens of the Himalayas and their tasty cuisine. Nepal House aims to change that, currying flavor one meal at a time.

Nepal House, 1301 S. Michigan Ave. Sunday-Thursday, 11am-10pm; Friday-Saturday, 11am-10:30pm. (312)922-0601.

This story has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: May 9, 2013

Due to an editing error, the print version of this story incorrectly identified its author, Josh Kovensky.