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Review: At Mount Masala, magnificent momos and Himalayan goat worth the trek

One of the region's few examples of Nepali cooking draws fans with bold, distinctive flavors and the love story of an immigrant couple that's found the freedom to thrive in a South Jersey strip mall.

The sizzling chicken momo at Mount Masala Himalayan Cuisine Indian Style in Voorhees, N.J.
The sizzling chicken momo at Mount Masala Himalayan Cuisine Indian Style in Voorhees, N.J.Read moreMonica Herndon / Staff Photographer

Never underestimate the ability of the Strip Mall Stars of South Jersey to surprise and transport you.

One moment I’m cruising down White Horse Road in Voorhees Township, elevation 112 feet above sea level, scanning the landscape of random storefronts. Next thing you know, I pass through the seemingly generic front door of Mount Masala and walk into a fragrant cloud of chile-spiced gravy billowing from sizzling platters of momos. And I’m instantly whisked to Kathmandu.

The capital of Nepal, elevation 4,593 feet, is where Mount Masala’s owner, Gayatri “Gigi” Giri, moved as a teenager from the mountainous region of Bandipur, and where she eventually fell in love with her husband and chef, Bharat Bist. They were introduced through a college friend, but because they come from different castes, which traditionally discourages intermarriage, they believed their relationship had the best chance to thrive in the United States.

“I’m a dreamer and this country gave me the best opportunity to explore and bring the best out of me,” said Giri, 33, who left behind a garment manufacturing business to pursue their new life in America, where they now have a young daughter named Givane. They want the success of their restaurant to send “small messages to [Nepalese] society that caste doesn’t matter. ... It’s all about love.”

Have you ever had a Handsome Chicken Lollipop (with or without the gravy)? A bowl of Manchau soup sparkling with fresh ginger spice? Momos four ways? Or tender goat stir-fried with the nose-tingling spice of Himalayan magic? Love in the form of such powerful flavors is persuasive, indeed.

This part of New Jersey is full of similar immigrant restaurant stories of newcomers making fresh starts and realizing tall ambitions by sharing their cultures through the kitchen door. This short stretch of White Horse Road is itself a mini-United Nations of independent small restaurants serving Italian, Chinese, Mexican, Indian, and Thai cuisines. But there’s something special about Mount Masala. It’s not the dining room itself, a plain open floor plan space lightly redecorated from its days as a branch of Tiffin with dark floors and ceilings, patterned wallpaper, and a shrine to Nepali-born Siddhartha Gautama, Buddha, that sits across from portraits of lofty Mount Everest and Annapurna.

The vibrant, dialed-up flavors here are what made me return, the lingering memory of those sizzling momos drawing me back from an initial scouting visit for a deeper look. This is partly because Mount Masala, a BYOB that opened in 2017, was one of the only representations of Nepalese cooking in the Philadelphia region for years. Giri’s husband soft-opened a sibling concept in Spring Garden this past weekend, Nepali Momo Kitchen, with a grand opening planned for October. Its primary focus is on a wide array of dumplings, noodles, and rice dishes. (Lancaster also has the charming Himalayan Curry & Grill.)

Nepali cooking shares some similarities with Tibetan cuisine, which you can find at White Yak in Roxborough, another personal favorite. But just as Tibet and Nepal reside on opposite sides of the Himalayan mountain range, their differences are defined in part by geography, with Tibet’s cuisine drawing more influence from China while Nepal leans decidedly more Indian. That explains the incendiary ghost peppers that are at the boldly spiced base of Mount Masala’s stews and sauces, which ignited my lips with a glow. The full name of the restaurant, Mount Masala Himalayan Cuisine Indian Style, leaves no doubt in its prime source of influence.

And yet, this kitchen has its own distinct flair. For example, the flavorful gobi Manchurian has no batter on the cauliflower like its typical Indo-Chinese-style counterpart. Or the chilli sauce, commonly ketchup red elsewhere, which arrives here with more of a brown soy sauce tint, sparked with fresh green chiles and coriander.

Bist, who studied hotel management in Nepal and attended culinary school in Manhattan, where this couple first landed, has created a series of sauces and gravies that are distinctive and personalized interpretations of village flavors they grew up with. The Mount Masala sauce is the restaurant’s mother red brew, steeped over three hours with dried chiles, ginger, garlic, and ajwain seeds that add a fennel-like whiff of anise. It lends the restaurant’s fried rice an electric spice, with a deeper reddish hue than, say, a more golden Indian biryani.

The chunks of halal goat are best in the Himalayan gravy, which melds an extra burst of ginger, cilantro, and garlic with the kitchen’s cumin-rich blend of curry. It coaxes a depth of savor from the superbly tender marinated meat that is one of the most delicious local arguments I’ve encountered for why Philadelphians should be eating more goat.

While Bist and Giri are eager to share their cuisine, they’re also keen to attract as broad an audience as possible. Chicken wing aficionados should step up to Mount Masala’s meatier “lollipops.” Made from thighs bunched down around the bone, they’re marinated with ghost peppers and tandoori spice, and fried into crispy mallets of poultry served “Handsome”-style (plain) or tossed in a mahogany glow of sweet and spicy gravy. Mount Masala also serves some beef dishes, which is uncharacteristic of this couple’s home region, but fantastic in Bist’s “fusion” style, which unifies three of the kitchen’s sauces — Mount Masala, Himalayan, and Chilli Manchurian — into a more-is-more flavor bomb of sweet, heat, and tang.

For the spice averse, Mount Masala has a popular style called Hakku Bakku, which Giri says translates to “not hard,” whose seasoning is primarily defined by soy and the smoky singe of a fire-kissed wok. But subtle flavors are generally not the reason to make the trek to this corner of Voorhees.

The smoke show of the sizzling momos is an eye-catcher, for sure. But it’s the confidently layered flavors that make the dish magnetic. The sauce is a shimmering blast of spice and buttery sweetness, a blend of red chiles, ghee, and honey (with an umami helper of Maggi) that gives way to yet another distinct flavor inside the momos, a curried ground chicken filling amped with a fresh green chile-cilantro paste.

Unlike their new Philadelphia project, which showcases momos with multiple proteins inside (from veggie to cheese and goat), Mount Masala’s momos all come stuffed with chicken. But the presentations show the dumpling’s versatility. The momo sadeko comes sauced in a biting and vinegary yellow puree of crushed mustard seeds, green garlic, and Timur pepper, the lip-numbing Nepalese counterpart to Szechuan peppercorns. Jhol momo brings the same dumplings floating in a tomato-based soup scented with cumin and lemon. The fried momos arrive in tomato sauce radiating ginger.

By the end of our second meal, once we’d ordered so much food that an extra table needed to be moved over to accommodate our dishes, I was still mopping my brow from the ghost pepper afterglow when Giri showed up with a complimentary dessert to cool me off. It was two disks of superbly creamy house-made kulfi flavored vanilla and ripe mango. But why, I wonder, were these ice creams so rich and tangy sweet?

The secret is a splash of yak’s milk: “Just a little bit,” Giri says, to help capture that elusive taste of her faraway home. Was I surprised to be spooning through delicious yak’s milk ice cream in Voorhees, suddenly daydreaming of a trip to Kathmandu? Absolutely not. The Strip Mall Stars of South Jersey win again.

Mount Masala Himalayan Cuisine Indian Style

300 White Horse Rd. E. #1, Voorhees Township, 856-281-9711;

BYOB Bring a cold lager, sour ale, or riesling to quench the heat.

Entire menu served Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday 11:30 a.m. – 2:30 p.m., 4:30 – 9:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. – 9:30 p.m.; Sunday noon – 9:30 p.m. Closed Wednesday.

Some gluten-free options available.

Wheelchair accessible.