On a good night at the new Woodland Hills branch of Tara's Himalayan Cuisine, it can feel like the entire world loves you. Tara Gurung Black, there most nights, is the kind of owner who hugs her regulars, who chats with guests new and old, who will tell you without hesitation which menu items she loves.
"Get the yak chili," Black says. "Oh god, I love the yak chili so much." Tara's Himalayan serves up food from Nepal, Tibet and India, three of the countries through which the Himalayan Mountains run. Yak chili is a traditional dish from Black's Nepali homeland, and it's an encapsulation of everything that's good about her restaurant. It is vivid and brimming with life. It has the wild flavor of yak, pungent and charred, but balanced against the sweetness of tomatoes.
The dish is vibrant with details: The onions are crisp and sweet, the bell peppers just barely cooked, the ginger still punchy. This is not cooking that melds flavors; this is cooking that likes every ingredient still screaming with its original flavors.
"Get the chicken korma," Black says. "It's everybody's favorite." What shows up at your table is a small, deliriously aromatic dish of chicken chunks in a delicate orange sauce. It's lushly creamy but somehow clear: The taste of fresh chicken leaps out.
"It's coconut milk," Black says. Chicken korma can be a dairy-rich dish, but Black wanted to lighten it up, so she substituted coconut milk. Nepalese cooking is already oriented toward lightness, she says, and her eating experiences in America pushed her even further in that direction.
To fully experience the quiet majesty of this lush, subtle sauce, try it with a piece of the superb nan. Beneath the korma sauce's curry spices, the ground cashews and the cooked coconut milk amalgamate into what could almost be the chilled-out funk of cooked cheddar, so that somehow the dish ends up feeling, weirdly, like mac and cheese from an alternate dimension.
Eating through the menu and chatting with Black, you get the feeling that she truly loves her vegetables. The best dish with which to witness this: aloo bodi tama, a Himalayan dish of bamboo shoots, potatoes and black-eyed peas. It might show you that a bamboo shoot, selected and prepared with the proper reverence, can reach the profundity of aged steak. The bamboo shoot is so crisp, so abundantly juicy and so complexly sweet that diners occasionally shout in surprise at their first bite.
The restaurant is just like the owner: sweet, conscientious and laid-back. There are white tablecloths with white paper on top. The Woodland Hills branch is the second Tara's Himalayan (the first is in Palms), and she and much of her cooking team have been spending a lot of time at the newer location.
Momo — dumplings — are lovely, with abundantly juicy fillings and a firm wrapper. Samosas are fantastic too, with delicately cloud-like mashed potato filling. The most soul-satisfying dish might be chicken chili: chunks of chicken, battered in chickpea flour and sautéed with sweet tomatoes and vegetables.
End the meal with kheer, the Indian dessert, normally made with dairy. Black plays the same trick as with the korma and makes it with coconut milk. It might make you wish that Black was your mother.
TARA'S HIMALAYAN CUISINE
LOCATION: 19737 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills; (818) 932-9572.
PRICE: Appetizers, $3 to $7; entrees, $7 to $11; breads, $2 to $4.
DETAILS: Open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Closed Mondays. Tea, yogurt drinks and soda. Credit cards accepted. Lot parking.