It all started, in part, because of a chicken burger.
Dipesh Acharya’s home country, Nepal, is in love with burgers. But Nepal is also 80 percent Hindu, so restaurants there can’t make patties out of beef. Local chefs responded with a logical new fusion food: a ground chicken burger graced with a blend of Nepali spices. When Acharya moved to Texas in 2009, he was surrounded by burgers — none of them like the kind he had back home.
“I definitely crave burgers,” he says, “but chicken burgers are not so common here.”
When Acharya was a student at Texas State University, nothing Nepali was common in Texas, and he had more cravings besides chicken burgers, including chai and Nepal’s ubiquitous, iconic dumpling snack, the momo. Before he could cure that shortage with a restaurant of his own, he had to deal with one small obstacle: learning how to cook.
First Acharya begged his friends and family back home for their recipes. Soon enough, his Texas neighbors and taste-testers were the ones doing the begging, and Acharya opened a stall, Muda Flavors of Nepal, at the Dallas Farmers Market in 2015. After a brief stint in the food truck business, Muda has expanded into its own permanent space, Cafemandu Flavors of Nepal, in Irving.
Cafemandu has a full-time head chef, Sailesh Bajracharya. It has a blend of traditional and fusion-style foods, ranging from rice bowls and lentil pancakes to a Texas fairground-style sausage on a stick. Best of all, Cafemandu’s enthusiastic staff and descriptive menu make it an ideal starting point for Dallas-area diners who want to try Nepali food for the first time.
Cafemandu offers nine varieties of momo, ranging from plain steamed dumplings served in a tray to a bowl of momo soup with crisp red broth. You can get your momos covered in cheesy sauce, if you like, or deep-fried and slathered in spices. Every preparation can be had with chicken, pork, vegetarian or vegan filling.
A plain bowl of steamed chicken momos is an opportunity to admire the craftsmanship of chef Bajracharya and his team. The momos may be plump, but they’re almost all filling. The skin is smooth and so thin it’s nearly transparent, with a dozen pleats zigzagging in a ribbon across the top. Inside is so much chicken, scallion and gentle spice that eating a full order of 10 momos in one serving is practically a Man vs. Food challenge.
Even more remarkable: That bowl of 10 steamed momos costs just $5. It’s an outrageous bargain.
Other momo styles here may cost more, but they’re similarly good deals. The kothey, or pan-fried, momos ($8 for 10) have nice char from their moments in the skillet, and they leave behind only a trace of grease. Unlike the chicken filling, pork dumplings come formed with a crown across the top, the dough pleated into a ring.
One of Nepal’s favorite ways to eat dumplings is slathered in a spicy coating of chili sauce with a handful of chopped bell peppers and onions. Cafemandu’s “C-Momo” ($9 for 10) are an excellent introduction to the genre: The hot sauce here is only gently fiery, although the heat builds in intensity as you chow down on a full order. (Contrast this with nearby Momostop, a gas station counter that serves C-Momo in a shade of red nature usually reserves for animals trying to warn off their predators.)
Two traditional Nepali dishes, chatamari and bara, could serve as appetizers or even work, in a pinch, as brunch. Chatamari ($6.89) is described by staff as a “Nepali pizza,” and it sort of is: A thin crust made of rice flour gets seared until nearly black and topped with egg, ground chicken, onion and a mix of sweet and hot peppers. Anybody who’s enjoyed bibimbap served in a hot stone, or savored the result of a home-cooking mistake, will already know the pleasure of eating gently burnt, crispy rice.
Most American diners will be new to bara, however ($6.99). This is a pancake made with ground lentils and ground chicken, seared in a skillet. Between flips, the bara is topped with a fried egg, which cooks straight into the pancake itself, so that finding the egg yolk is a bit like discovering a prize. Bara is simple, straightforward and utterly delicious.
While more or less everyone can dig into a bowl of momos or a plate of bara and fall in love, some of Cafemandu’s offerings are better suited to diners who are already familiar with Nepali spices. A goat curry bowl ($9.49) arrives with bones still in the cubed meat, which rests on a bed of long-grained basmati rice, chunked red onions and a variety of Nepali beans. With a brace of cilantro added to the spice blend and the raw onions’ sheer heat, it’s a nose-clearing, eye-popping bowl that’s a bit of an acquired taste.
Acharya says introducing local customers to Nepali tradition is a major reason he opened the restaurant. He serves tea brewed with leaves from his native country and is working on sourcing Nepali beans to use in the shop’s coffee.
There’s no doubting which dish is Cafemandu’s top seller. “People just love momos,” Acharya says. “Momos in Nepal, it’s more like burgers here in the U.S. On every corner, you drive by and you find momo stalls. You find restaurants selling momos in each and every corner.”
But the fusion foods are important too, including chow mein adapted from the country’s neighbors in China and, yes, the chicken burger that helped inspire Cafemandu’s journey.
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How is that chicken burger? Well, mostly it tastes like a normal American chicken sandwich ($7.69). A sauce pink with seasonings is counterbalanced by cooling slices of avocado. It’s not bad at all, and it comes with a big handful of black pepper potato chips.
The most tempting of the fusion foods is a Nepali burrito loaded up with a proprietary nine-bean mix ($7.89). A burrito might seem out of place here, but the components — rice, beans, flatbread, hot sauce — are as much a fit in Nepal as they are in the American Southwest. And that’s not the only reason the burrito is on the menu.
“You’re in Texas,” Acharya explains. “You gotta know burritos.”
Cafemandu Flavors of Nepal, 3711 N. Belt Line Road, Irving. 469-647-5067, cafemandu.com. Open daily 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.