Since I visited the Detroit Shipping Co. food hall late last year, it's quintupled its visitors. ("Food hall" is the new polite term for "food court.") Folks are drawn to the chance to try two bars, four different ethnic restaurants — Mexican, Thai, Caribbean, and now Nepalese — and a sand volleyball court out back. There's a special drinks menu just for Pedal Pubbers.
Now, the food hall was built, on purpose, out of shipping containers. Those containers are made of metal. The result, when the place is full, which it is all weekend, is a din so loud that even shouting will not make you heard. I was there on a Saturday night, and so were a number of bridal parties — there was a line at the bar and I got my first sighting of a guy in a "Groom To Be" sash.
I tried again on a Monday, but the Backstreet Boys were at Little Caesars Arena, and the place was hopping with former tweens, current tweens, and some moms. The girls weren't screaming yet; it was just the echoing of their sheer numbers that made conversation a chore.
So although the food at Momo Cha is fine, and at the other three restaurants as well, be prepared. Personally, I find it hard to concentrate on one sense if another one is being assaulted.
Momos are dumplings, and Momo Cha, I was delighted to find, is "an emphatic way of saying momo!" according to co-owner Louisa Ainsworth. Her husband and co-owner, Anjani Lama, from Nepal, is the chef behind the place.
Nepalese food is similar to Indian, more in the home-style cooking they're offering than in restaurant dishes, according to Ainsworth. Dumplings are distinctly Nepalese, though you can find them in parts of India too.
And who doesn't like a dumpling? These Nepalese ones are most similar to the potstickers you get in a Chinese restaurant, same size and shape. The steamed ones are slick and rubbery in a good way; the deep-fried ones are reminiscent of spring rolls in texture and taste; and the pan-fried ones are in between. I liked them all: pork, chicken, and vegetable.
With your order of four or eight dumplings you choose a chutney, which here is a smooth sauce. I recommend the tomato-cilantro and the mint-cilantro; the former is made with roasted tomatoes, and that bright flavor comes through. I wasn't crazy about the roasted soybean and sesame chutney, which came across kind of musty.
Momo Cha also serves a few "snacks" and a "meal" of the Nepali national dish, dal bhat, served in a cardboard dish with dividers, like a TV dinner. (All the plates at the Shipping Co. are disposable, though management has graduated to metal forks, from plastic. Napkins are no longer brown paper toweling torn raggedly off a random roll. There are perforated white paper towels on spindles now. Such sophistication!)
Dal bhat is lentils and rice, and you get a lot of both. The yellow lentils are far more flavorful than most, with a good pea taste. The side dishes that come with are chicken or vegetable curry (vegan), plus some vegetables. The curry was just about the right heat level for most Westerners, and I especially liked the vegan version, with cauliflower, carrots, squash, and zucchini.
But I loved the side vegetables even more. Once they were smoky mushrooms and tomatoes; another night it was cabbage and potatoes in a smoky mahogany sauce — each worthy of elevation to a main course. You can actually get this as a snack, $5 "seasonal mixed vegetables," and I would go that way next time (with dumplings, of course).
Another dish is chicken choila, advertised as from free-range local birds. Maybe the exercise had made the meat a little tough, but the brilliant flavors — cilantro, chili, ginger, garlic, green onion, and turmeric — were good. It's served with dry puffed rice that is 100 percent flavor-free. Ask whether you can substitute regular rice.
Nor was I a fan of French fry chaat (pronounced chaht). It's some limp fries topped with yogurt, brown and green chutneys (kind of sour), red onions, diced tomatoes and sev — a confetti of tiny bits of fried chickpea-flour noodles. On fries, it looks like a mistake — sort of a South Asian poutine — and the flavors don't blend well. I usually love a chaat, which is a broad category of Indian street food with a starchy base and you pile on from there. But better to use an Indian base like puris or potato chunks, even smashed samosas, rather than French fries, IMO.
Ainsworth implied that her and Lama's goal is to expand Momo Cha to other locations, and I hope they do. Dumplings this good, available far and wide — cha!
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