Indigenous to the Kathmandu Valley, the Newar people account for only about 5.5 percent of the population of Nepal. Chances are good that Westerners could go through a perfectly rich life never hearing of the ethnic minority. But they would be missing out on something truly delicious.
Newari traditions influence Nepalese food beyond that small population, though, and the lucky diners of NoVA are likely no strangers to Himalayan cuisine. After all, you can find expertly spiced momos (dumplings) everywhere from a gas station in Chantilly to one of our 50 Best Restaurants in Ashburn. But Roadhouse Momo & Grill is our region’s only full-service restaurant that focuses on Newari cuisine.
Repeated emails and calls to the restaurant never led to an interview, but my difficulty in making contact by press time is no reflection of the warmth with which owner Pawan Gyanwali and his staff envelop diners. Upon each of my visits, I was ably assisted in choosing my best bets from a large menu that is loaded with hits. The team is genuinely concerned that diners enjoy their dishes. Fortunately, unless they have a problem with grass-fed proteins and intricate spice blends, they most certainly will.
Nearly every item at Roadhouse is listed on the menu with a choice of proteins. Momos, for example, can be made with chicken, water buffalo (identified as “buff”), pork, or vegetables. I like my dumplings fatty and was rewarded for choosing the pork with a lovably oily gush at first bite that filled the plate with turmeric-colored juices. A sauce made with tomato, cilantro, and sesame provides a brightly spicy pairing to the plump dumplings.
A word on spice: If you don’t crave the endorphin boost of a nice burn, tell your server. There are plenty of tamer options, such as the wood-fire-grilled skewers of sekuwa, which might remind diners of morsels somewhere between Indian tikka and Indonesian satay. But if you think you can handle yourself around a chile, exercise caution. My dining companion nearly sweated through his shirt at some of the “medium” dishes. I recommend starting at that level and working your way up from there.
Heat is of the essence when ordering a dish called “chilly,” a relative of Indo-Chinese chili chicken. The staffer who served me told me that this is a common street food in Kathmandu. Composed of protein (in my case, bouncy paneer) fried up with onions, peppers, and a vinegar-redolent hot sauce, I say approach the heat with abandon and be rewarded with more than a mere tingle on your lips. A side of beaten rice — flat dry grains that taste like puffed rice — will help alleviate any twinge of suffering.
But my favorite among the hotter dishes I encountered at Roadhouse was another with Chinese influences. The skinny strands of chow mein are ideally al dente and the gingery sauce that dresses them is respectably fiery, but never at the cost of its fresh, vegetable-packed flavor. I got mine with chicken that was beautifully bronzed crisp on the outside, lending one of myriad fun textures in each bite.
High-quality proteins are a signature at Roadhouse. There are burgers, steaks, ribs, and chops from a small petting zoo’s worth of fauna. I tried a bone-in pork chop that reminded me of what I buy at local farmers markets — only far more interestingly spiced than anything I’ve prepared at home. The tender, fat-rimmed chop is awash with cumin and grilled over wood for some impressive lines of char that it shares with the asparagus served on the side. It’s a dish that will please even picky eaters who shrink at the mention of getting the same order but with goat or water buffalo.
For something a little more exotic, there are the Newari street food snacks of bara and chatamari. The former is a black lentil pancake, while the latter is a rice one, both topped with ground meat and egg. The chatamari I tried was a bit like a spiced water buffalo frittata atop a layer of spongy rice pastry. Many English-language Nepalese food blogs refer to it as “Nepali pizza.” A piquant tomato-based dip on the side brings fire to a food I would be happier to eat for breakfast than would consider a pizza.
If you must eat dessert at Roadhouse, I would skip the lakhamari, which is an overwhelmingly greasy version of the Newari take on jalebi, or funnel cake. The sweet was my only real misstep among the dishes I ordered. Instead, try the homemade pistachio kulfi, which is as nutty and milky in flavor as any single mouthful can be.
I was nonplussed that each time I ordered dessert, the plates from my finished meal were left on the table. It’s not enough negligence to leave me soured on the otherwise more than solid service, but still worth noting.
Nepali food is far from a crowded field, but Northern Virginia is fortunate to have some options. And when I’m craving a meaty meal with infinitely more flavor than I’d get at a steakhouse, I’ll keep Roadhouse in mind. In fact, the restaurant can be many things to many people. There are plentiful vegetarian options as well. But most importantly, Roadhouse is a direct line to a vibrant culture practically a world away.
Roadhouse Momo & Grill
See This: Buddha and Ganesh receive equal respect in opposite corners of the room. Above the well-stocked bar, videos of Nepali life conjure a mountaintop vibe.
Eat This: Momos, chow mein, pork chop
Open for dinner Monday through Sunday. Lunch is served Tuesday through Sunday. 44050 Ashburn Shopping Plz., Ste. 151, Ashburn