Everest Café is not an easy destination. Given St. Louis' random, now-you-see-civic-progress, now-you-don't latticework, being situated a mere stone's throw from the City Museum to the east and the Schlafly Tap Room to the west means nothing; "desolate downtown hinterland" describes this stretch of Washington Avenue. Vertical bars line the restaurant's windows, while inside prayer flags hang horizontally. Everest's only neighbor is a windowless storefront church across the street. Sometimes, owner Devi States says, people have called to reserve tables for dinner on the weekends, only to call back and say they decided to keep driving and eat somewhere else, not wanting to park their cars once they found the place. States has since successfully lobbied the city to install streetlights.
Now he just needs to get people to come eat at his four-month-old Nepalese café, his dream venture ever since he was a kid washing dishes at K.C.'s Restaurant in Katmandu, where he lived after completing boarding school. He has washed dishes in American restaurants, too, while picking up an undergraduate degree in Washington and two master's degrees (in social work and public health) at Saint Louis University. Now in his late thirties, and with only amateur, at-home cooking experience to his credit, States poached a Nepalese-born chef, Nabin Thapa, from the Minneapolis restaurant scene, read a few books on restaurant management and is banking on his advanced degrees when it comes to taking care of customers and giving a damn about nutrition. Knowing full well the risk he was taking as a first-time restaurateur, he'd planned to continue working at a People's Health Center, but then he got laid off in January. So this is it. This is, to make an obvious metaphor, his Everest.
Business has been slow but is steadily increasing, aided along by good word of mouth and a swift-enough lunch crowd from nearby offices, States reports. Still, the place is empty far more often than it is full, and that's a lot of hope to hang on the 1900 block of Washington Avenue.
food n. 1. Material, usually of plant or animal origin, that contains or consists of essential body nutrients, such as carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, or minerals, and is ingested and assimilated by an organism to produce energy, stimulate growth, and maintain life.... [from the American Heritage Dictionary]
As geography would suggest, Nepalese cuisine bears strong visual and gastronomic resemblances to Indian and occasionally Chinese. Lunch, as is common at Indian and Chinese places around town, is served cafeteria-style, entrée and side choices comprising dal (puréed lentils), "fire spicy" chicken, tofu with sweet peas, sag (mildly seasoned spinach), etc. Dinners, presented on metal serving platters like at Indian restaurants, begin with a complimentary plate of papar, pieces of cornflake-thin crisps made from lentils, similar to Indian pappadam but served plain, without dipping sauces. (Indian food relies more on sauces and gravies than Nepalese does, according to States.) Available as an appetizer is masala, a more substantial, squishier bread delicately spiced with fried herbs that would pass for Indian naan were it not for the powdered sugar sprinkled on top (which in turn conjures a less saccharine rendition of Italian zeppole -- or, ahem, funnel cakes).
The strongest Chinese influence on the menu is the mo-mo, a steamed dumpling that originated in Tibet but has become very popular in Nepal. A shiny-smooth, skinlike casing houses either ground pork or mixed vegetables. Both varieties are delectable even if they do taste strangely similar. Mo-mos are traditionally served with achar (pronounced at-czar), a very specifically prepared sauce also poured on rice that the Nepalese love and take quite seriously: tomatoes, onions, lentils, garlic, ginger and other spices, well cooked and twice blended.
Like most East Asian foods, Nepalese dishes are nearly always founded on beds of white rice, with lamb and chicken the main proteins (States occasionally veers from Hindu doctrine to offer beef dishes in order to suit American tastes) and vegetables such as bamboo shoots. Vegetarian and vegan choices abound at Everest: tofu sag curry, annapurna tarkari (green beans and potatoes sautéed with onions and tomatoes, garnished with green onions), bhuteko cauli ra alu (potatoes and cauliflower, garnished with green onions). Platters with or without meat, presented on compartmentalized trays and referred to as "complete Nepalese meals," feature a cup of dal, a scoop of rice, hefty dollops of pickled fruits and vegetables (including a startlingly tart pickled mango, recognizable because it looks like nothing you've ever seen on a plate in these parts) that must be eaten in small bites with lots of rice chaser, a single cucumber slice ("for balance," States says) and a piece of lemon for spritzing over other foods or for cleansing the palate at the end of the meal. The sole dessert is rice pudding, called kheer, soupier than what we're accustomed to stateside and studded with raisins, shredded coconut and cardamom still in the pod. Like the pickled mango, the cardamom should be approached nibble by nibble, if at all.
soul n. 1. The animating and vital principle in humans, credited with the faculties of thought, action, and emotion and often conceived as an immaterial entity. 2. The spiritual nature of humans, regarded as immortal, separable from the body at death, and susceptible to happiness or misery in a future state.... [from the American Heritage Dictionary]
For all the ways it falls in line with other Asian eateries, Everest Café is, truly, a soul food restaurant through and through: located in an ungentrified area, unfussy in its décor, casual but attentive and friendly in its service, cheap but downright reverent about the down-home-style food it serves. Dumplings, green beans, vegetable fritters, black-eyed peas, fried cauliflower and okra -- all the traditional ingredients are here. (Even the potato-stuffed samosas bear strong resemblance to knishes, which are nothing if not a staple of Jewish soul food.) So is the patient, affectionate cooking that results in lamb and chicken that would fall off the bone if they hadn't been boned already. Meats are simmered in a mixture of onion, bay leaves, nutmeg and cinnamon sticks, then put to the pan with turmeric, coriander, cumin, chile powder and, most important, loads of ginger and garlic. The garlic is peeled and pounded on site, and a stone mortar and pestle are used to grind the coriander and cumin seeds into powder. The kitchen does not cut corners. There is real devotion happening here -- you can taste it.
"My wife, Connie States, and I would like to thank you for your decision to visit Everest Café and trusting us to prepare your meal," begins States' open letter to his customers, laid under the glass table tops at each place setting. He also thanks his adoptive American father, James H. States, M.D., whom he met back at K.C.'s in 1983, when the elder States was there to attempt an Everest ascent (he succeeded). James States took a shine to the teenager busing his table. When he learned both the boy's parents had died, he offered to bring him back to America.
"It is the mission of Everest Café to have every customer who comes through our door leave impressed and excited to come back again." Such restaurant dreams don't happen easy -- especially when they involve serving unfamiliar cuisine in no-man's-land neighborhoods. But Devi States knows how to handle an uphill climb.