Ever since he got his start in the restaurant industry as a dishwasher in New York 20 years ago, Rabten Lama dreamed of opening a Himalayan restaurant.
But Himalayan food — which incorporates the cuisines of Nepal, Tibet, and northern India — was relatively unknown in the Bay Area until recently. There's a sizable Tibetan population in the Albany-El Cerrito-Richmond area, and an even bigger Nepalese population. But unlike the East Coast, where the Nepali and Tibetan communities are large enough to sustain restaurants on their own, Lama worried that he wouldn't be able to draw enough non-Nepalese and Tibetan customers to support a restaurant in the Bay Area.
So Lama continued to work his way up in Berkeley restaurants including Fonda and Jimmy Bean's. In 2013, he took over as the owner of Jimmy Bean's, renaming the café Lama Bean's. There, he served a variety of cuisines — Mexican, Middle Eastern, and American breakfast — but nothing from his homeland of Nepal. But when Lama's longtime friend, Tenzin Nyima, heard that a restaurant space in El Cerrito was becoming available, they jumped on the opportunity to realize Lama's dream of two decades.
Both Lama and Nyima are political asylees. Lama fled Nepal and came to New York before settling in the East Bay. Nyima is Tibetan, but his parents escaped to India before he was born. He was raised there before he moved here to attend UC Berkeley. Lama offers years of restaurant experience, while Nyima brings his technical know-how as a software engineer to the partnership.
"We complete each other very well," Nyima said. "And so we thought we could overcome this challenge of introducing something really new."
Zomsa opened in early May. Photos of Nepal and Tibet taken by a Lama Bean's customer adorn the walls, while travel videos and music videos from Nepal and Tibet play on the large flatscreen TV. On my visits, most tables were buzzing with Nepali and Tibetan speakers chatting over plates of momos and chicken chilli. Zomsa is meant to be this kind of coming together of cultures — its name translates to "meeting place" in Tibetan. Written on the wall is the word chautara — the Nepali equivalent of a zomsa.
"The whole idea was to ... create a place where everyone can meet," Nyima said.
The menu also offers a mixture of Tibetan and Nepali foods — though Nyima and Lama insist the two cuisines and cultures are very similar, despite their different languages. The menu does lean more Nepalese, though; the head chef is Lama's sister, Manju Lama, who learned to cook from her mother back in Nepal. She makes nearly everything from scratch using primarily organic ingredients sourced from Berkeley Bowl, Monterey Market, and farmers markets. That might seem like an attempt to appeal to an upscale Bay Area crowd, but really, they're just doing things the way they did back in their villages in Nepal and Tibet. And they're offering it at an extremely reasonable price.
"A lot of these things we consider here healthy, it was a necessity," Nyima said. "All the processed foods were expensive for us back then. ... For us, it's easier to grow something in the backyard."
The sukuti bento box appetizer embodies Zomsa's philosophy of using homemade, quality ingredients — and it's a dish I haven't seen anywhere else. Sukuti is the star here: Traditionally made using water buffalo, this version was made with pieces of wild bison, smoked in-house for 12 hours until it achieved a beef jerky-like texture. The bison came tossed in a blend of onions, tomatoes, and peppers. Then there were the accompaniments: spicy pickles made of veggies like cucumbers and daikon, a tomato-based cold potato salad that was light in flavor, yet creamy in texture; crackly dried soybeans with onions, cilantro, and tomato; and a slice of raw carrot and daikon for freshness. The only thing that wasn't housemade was the beaten rice — dried rice grains resembling flattened Rice Krispies that added a hint of toasted flavor and plenty of crunchiness.
The pakoras featured a melánge of seasonal vegetables — this time spinach, zucchini, cabbage, and onion — all finely shredded and lightly battered so each strand was coated in the airy, crisp batter. The flavor of the vegetables still shone through, while zesty, spicy mint chutney and tangy tamarind sauce added interest.
Zomsa makes an exception to its no-processed-food rule with the Wai Wai chatpatey, a street food dish made with crushed instant noodles tossed with red onions, tomatoes, cilantro, and crunchy white soybeans. The flavor was much more complex than you'd expect from crumbled noodles: lemon juice added acidity, while homemade mustard oil combined with green chili and red chili paste created a sneaky, building heat. It's the ideal snack to consume with one of the beers on tap from local breweries like Richmond's East Brother Beer Co.
Momos, which are handmade daily, are a must-order, best shared among a group. Meat options include buffalo, beef, or chicken. The buffalo momos (again, wild bison meat is used) are a popular choice among Nepalis, many of whom don't eat beef for religious reasons. The jhol version, the most popular, came on a plate flooded with creamy, mellow cashew-peanut-sesame sauce that had the tiniest bit of tingling spice from Sichuan peppercorn.
Momos are also available in vegetarian versions stuffed with paneer and seasonal veggies, and vegan versions stuffed with assorted veggies plus tofu or mock meat. I sampled a vegan version with mock meat and cabbage, spinach, onions, carrots, and mushrooms, which was subtly flavored and allowed the taste and texture of the vegetables to shine. The tomato-based dipping sauce, laden with garlic, onions, and smoked chili and Sichuan peppercorn, was more assertive than the jhol version, though those who are spice-averse can ask for less heat.
The most unique entrée was the thakali thali, a platter from the Thakali region of Nepal. Lama and Nyima believe they're the first to offer it in the Bay Area. Available in both meat and vegan versions (it's also gluten-free), the goat version came with a mildly spiced goat curry flavored with fennel, cumin, and coriander (though the meat could have been more tender) and a warm, gingery dal made with yellow lentils on the side. At the center of the platter was a mound of fragrant white rice topped with a slightly soggy papad, and surrounded by side dishes like fried Indian bitter melon, aloo gobi, pickled daikon, mustard greens, a lime for squeezing, and dollops of momo sauce and chili paste for a little extra flavor. My favorites were the mustard greens, cooked lightly so they maintained their crunch and grassy flavor, and the bitter melon, sliced thin and served crispy to tame the bitterness.
In the future, the duo hopes to expand hours to include happy hour and weekday lunch. Lama hopes to travel back to Nepal to research traditional sacred dishes like nettle soup, which he'll serve at Zomsa. In the meantime, both are enjoying witnessing Zomsa develop into a true community meeting place.
"Back in Nepal, it's more assimilated than here," Nyima said. "A lot of Tibetans and Nepalis come together here ... [and now] there's more communication between these two neighbors. So accidentally or whatever, we are very happy that that's happening."
The print version of this story misstated that zomsa is a Nepali word and chautara is a Tibetan word. The online version has since been corrected.