Northeast's not-so-hidden gem Gorkha Palace is worth rediscovering

Chicken chilli could be an entree itself, or a perfect plate to share.

Chicken chilli could be an entree itself, or a perfect plate to share.

Enter Gorkha Palace, the hidden-in-plain-sight, turmeric-hued edifice tucked behind Surdyk's in northeast Minneapolis, and you're hit with a wall of spice. Cumin, coriander, ginger, fenugreek, garam masala: This invisible curtain hangs in the atmosphere as certainly as the heavy fabric that cloaks the breezeway.

For six years, this small but mighty treasure has been thrumming away quietly, stoically. You won't see it much on social media or in the magazines, though it offers some of the best north Indian, Tibetan, and Nepalese cooking in either city. Ninety percent of the ingredients are organic. They grind every spice fresh in house. Their mantra is to treat "each and every guest like royalty," and they do. And somehow still you don't hear enough about this local treasure.

We're here to remind you.

Owner Rashmi Battachan uses recipes handed down from her Nepalese grandmother who cooked for the king and queen of that country. Nepal is a small country the size of Illinois burrowed in the Himalayas between India and Tibet. So here, you will find familiar northern Indian favorites, like chicken tikka masala, samosas, and spinach and paneer. Thanks to subtle variations based on ethnic groups, climate, and terrain, the cooking is also an amalgam of flavors. At Gorkha, expect heavy spice and copious use of chiles; curries in coconut milk and ghee alongside stews of lentils, chickpeas, and potatoes; plus dumplings, noodles, and tandoori breads.

The Gorkha calling card might very well be the momo: plump, meat-filled dumplings, big as a baby's fist and satisfying as tiny hamburgers but far more subtle. Sturdy yet delicate dough holds your choice of turkey, buffalo, or veggies spiced with cumin, coriander, turmeric, and timur (strong szechuan black pepper). They're stuffed with scallions, onions, cabbage, ginger, and garlic and twisted like little coin purses at the top, then served with a tomato-cilantro chutney. A dozen will set you back $13 to $15, or $18 for grass-fed bison from South Dakota, a worthwhile investment. Even if you don't finish them, leftovers make a divine midnight snack.

Battachan says that in Nepal, momos are a quintessential family affair, where the men grind the meat by hand, and women make the dough. "It's fun assembly work," she says. In Nepal, giant steamers are at least four or five levels tall, so that the dumplings finish simultaneously and everyone can enjoy them together. At Gorkha, this painstaking labor of love is done for you.

Garlic naan

Garlic naan

The labor-intensive craft doesn't stop there. Three varieties of naan, two kinds of roti, plus poori — a deep-fried puffed bread — make up the bread menu. Naan is made on a traditional tandoor (cylindrical clay oven), and Battachan says the process is "kind of tedious." But the result is well worth the trouble. The breads are made with local and organic Larry Schultz eggs, and organic milk, and once finished are brushed with house-made ghee that begins with organic butter. "When it comes to the table customers say, 'Oh it smells so wonderful!'"

It does.

Try pairing naan instead of rice with creamier dishes like chicken tikka or palak paneer. Battachan says the combination is "almost a match made in heaven."

A word on the restaurant's use of local and organic ingredients: Their commitment to around 90 percent organic product is very costly, but their prices are in alignment with comparable establishments.

"We don't want to charge humongous prices. We're fine with making a little less profit," says Battachan. She says they're able to strike a balance with portion control. "You also don't want to overwhelm customers with huge portions."

Instead, they overwhelm with huge flavor.

Turn to the chicken chilli, for instance, a protein-rich starter that you could almost think of as the Nepali answer to General Tso's Chicken. Bite-sized pieces of thigh meat are marinated in yogurt until tender, lightly dusted with flour, and fried with an irresistible brew of spices plus honey, tomato, and bell pepper. It could be an entree itself, or a no-brainer way to begin the meal and share.

If you're a fan of that Indian stalwart chicken tikka masala, give the chicken coconut a try. Our server described it as a "more refreshing" version of that familiar and comforting standby. With the fire of jalapenos, cucumber's cool water, and herbaceous basil, it offers a zippy foil to all the lavish fat. Think of it as the difference between a burger with or without lettuce, tomato, and onion. Both delicious, but crucial in contrast.

Now that spring has arrived you may not necessarily be in the market for what is perhaps the finest chicken noodle soup in the city. But think of it if you're under the weather, if you're sad, or when the final arctic blast hits unseasonably, inevitably in May.

Hand-pulled noodles are difficult to find locally, but here they sneakily, delightfully bob around the chicken thenthuk. Rich, golden chicken stock provides a pool for meaty bites of bird, daikon radish, a few tomatoes, spinach, and a light sprinkling of edamame. But the true triumph is in the noodles. They appear dense, even brawny, but as if by wizardry, they disappear on the tongue as instantly as a sugar cube. Battachan says it's an essential Tibetan dish, and she thinks of it as that country's pho. Tibet is cold (know of any other cold places?), so it's crucial to serve noodle soups for warmth.

Warmth is the key to Gorkha's charm. While some restaurants are savants at table setting, plate removal, and the delicate ballet of wine service and all the rest, those things can be taught. What can't be taught is generosity and true hospitality. In Tibet and Nepal, openness and selflessness are imperatives relating to Karma and religion. At Gorkha Palace, you can feel it. You can taste it, too. 0x00E7

Gorkha Palace
23 Fourth St. NE, Minneapolis