By Sean M. Peters
Chicago Tribune Published: Feb 08, 2022 at 5:00 am
Contrary to popular opinion, Cincinnati’s dining scene is not strictly composed of spaghetti drowned in a soupy brown sauce the locals insist is chili, topped overzealously with a heap of shredded cheddar cheese. The Queen City boasts a vast mingling of cultures and, along with them, their foods.
Thanks in part to the region’s large network of hospitals and the myriad careers they offer — not to mention a famously reasonable real estate market and enviable environment for tech startups — people from around the world have found Cincinnati a suitable place to set new roots.
Ashak Chipalu was one of them.
Chipalu emigrated from Nepal to Cincinnati in 2012 for a registered nursing career at the age of 25. Back home in Nepal, his parents, Rose and Manoj Chipalu, ran a restaurant called Kitchen Jawalakhel that, as their son describes it, served dishes popular within their Newar ethnic community, the Kathmandu Valley’s oldest settlers: chow mein, bite-sized dumplings called momos and various dishes rooted in Indochinese cuisine, served with tea, lassi and Coke.
Nepali food is culinarily situated between Chinese and Indian dishes, with an emphasis on smokiness and spice, always served with heaps of fresh, herby vegetables and spiced, ginger-marinated proteins such as chicken, pork or lentils in a range of fare that’s equally suited to omnivores and vegans. The flavors are familiar but powerful; food made to comfort and empower a body against the mountainous winds of the Himalayans. While Newar people use food to commemorate all occasions, eating Nepali food is, in many ways, its own celebration.
While he went through college, Ashak Chipalu, who typically introduces himself as Ash, worked in a few restaurants, mostly Chinese and Indian. He loves to eat out, but when he went to the city’s few Nepali restaurants, he was disappointed to see his cultural dishes treated like afterthoughts, silhouetted by creamy vindaloo-style curries popular in Cincinnati as a result of the city’s notable Indian community and subsequently prominent dining scene. Nothing, to him, tasted quite like home.
Then, on April 25, 2015, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake rocked the Kathmandu Valley and killed nearly 9,000 Nepali people, destroying ancient temples, homes and businesses alike — including Kitchen Jawalakhel. Rose and Manoj Chipalu survived, but were left with a ruined restaurant. Within a month, they moved to Cincinnati to live with their son.
“We are a culture that lives together with the parents, we always stick together,” their son said. “I was very happy to have them.”
And of course, it didn’t hurt to have his mother’s cooking again, either.
“I tasted my mom’s food once after she came here, and I thought ‘this is it.’ I decided that I’ll move into the restaurant business,” he said. “Nothing against registered nursing, but I wanted to be serving the people in a way that’s a better fit for me. That is why I made the transition.”
Things moved rather quickly once Ash and his parents were under the same roof. The Chipalus launched Bridges Nepali Cuisine as a vendor at farmers markets and other events — the titular bridge is meant to symbolically span between Eastern Asia and Western America.
Things really got started for Bridges at Findlay Market, Ohio’s oldest continuously operating public market, going since 1855. Visit Findlay Market (1801 Race St., findlaymarket.org) and you can come away with bags and bags of groceries and goodies from the market’s various international food merchants.
Among the hundred or so vendors that extend beyond the market’s main building to outdoor kiosks and small shops that stretch down two nearby city streets, there’s local produce; imported Mediterranean spices; hard-to-find Asian canned goods; fresh fish; even a pleasant buzz from the market’s tequila bar, or any number of adjacent breweries.
In fact, just a three-minute walk up Elm Street is Rhinegeist, the city’s most popular craft brewery and the second-largest in the state, though its neighbors in the historic brewing capital share the high acclaim. Rhinegeist is housed in a 250,000-square-foot former Moerlein packaging hall (1910 Elm St., rhinegeist.com) with a sprawling rooftop boasting sweeping views of the city’s rollicking hillsides.
Both the market and brewery are located in Cincinnati’s historic Over-the-Rhine district, often abbreviated as OTR and the subject of intense local debate over gentrification in recent decades. The area has become the city’s premier entertainment district, with duck-pin bowling, hip cocktail bars and buzzworthy restaurants — all anchored by the 166-year-old Findlay Market.
Not a bad place to get your start.
“We were looking for a place to experiment and present our food and serve the people as a beginner,” Ash Chipalu said. “Findlay Market was the best spot to do it. We didn’t find any other places that were matching Findlay Market’s capacity for a new business like us. We could go there on the weekend and appeal to thousands of people.”
This is around the time I first met the Chipalus in late 2016, at the height of Bridges’ first wave of popularity. If you succeed as a vendor at Findlay Market, you’ve gained the attention of a huge chunk of the city, and it led to the Chipalu family introducing a large number of Cincinnatians to Nepali food.
“Nepal is a really, really small country, but the food is very bold,” Ash Chipalu said. “And, you know, I think it’s one of the best foods in the world, especially our tribe’s. People just come back, then they’re back for more and back for more. That was my goal, and it’s being met.”
When the time came for Bridges to put down roots and open a bricks-and-mortar restaurant, the Chipalus chose the alt-friendly, artsy neighborhood of Northside. Like Chicago, Cincinnati is a city of neighborhoods, and this one is home to West African restaurant Darou Salam; Urban Artifact brewery, housed in a historic former church and featuring live music; and arguably one of the greatest record stores on the planet, Shake It Records (4156 Hamilton Ave., shakeitrecords.com).
Bridges fits right in with its family-style dishes, perfect for a quick takeout bite or a casual sit-down meal with a full wine and beer menu, including a few Nepali beers you don’t see every day. The food menu mostly stays the same, as the Chipalus believe in a quality-through-consistency approach.
The most popular dish is the rice bowl, which operates slightly like an Indian curry: a spiced sauce atop rice with simmered proteins and vegetables, but Bridges’ is seasoned and arranged from a Nepali approach. Funny enough, it’s not something you’d typically eat in a restaurant in Nepal, but is more in line with a home-cooked meal in the family kitchen. While it’s a favorite dish at Bridges, when Nepali families visit, they usually want something else.
“They enjoy rice at home,” Ash Chipalu said, “but they are there for chow mein and the momos.”
Ah, the momos. These could be the best dumplings you’ll ever eat. If you’re traveling with some dry ice and a cooler, you can take them home to share (or not share). You can even buy hundreds of them, enough to fill a freezer dedicated only to momo.
Bridges makes its momos with minced meat, veggies and simple spices — nothing mind-blowing in terms of ingredients. Ash will gladly go into detail when you stop in. The magical component of the momos seems to be the ratio of spices in conjunction with the filling’s texture and how both are complemented by the condiments: two dipping sauces, both tomato-based, but the orange puree is mild and garlicky, while the chunky green salsa is loaded with cilantro and spicy green peppers.
Another must-try item is woh, a Newari lentil pancake. This gluten-free patty has a meaty bite, thanks to the pleasant spring of the lentils, and is substantial enough to serve as its own entree. Aloo jhol is a warming soup, made with bamboo shoot, potato and black-eyed peas with tomato.
As word spreads, Bridges and its momos continue to grow in popularity.
Competitive eater Raina Huang, whose self-titled YouTube page features the petite, platinum-haired vlogger eating massive amounts of food around the world, stopped by Bridges to eat 100 momos last summer. She devoured them in about 30 minutes, washed down with a large mango lassi. (For comparison, the standard momo serving size is four to six of the golf ball-sized morsels when paired with a rice bowl or plate of chow mein.)
Momos are savory Nepali dumplings, a mainstay of the dining scene in Nepal. At Bridges in Cincinnati, green momos are vegan, yellow have pork and the white have chicken. They can be ordered for takeout or table service, in bulk for occasions, or frozen. (Sean M. Peters/for the Chicago Tribune)
The frozen momos, which customers can take home to steam or pan-sear as they see fit, have expanded into grocery aisles too. The vegetarian momos can be found in the frozen dumpling section at Jungle Jim’s International Market (4450 Eastgate South Drive; 5540 Dixie Highway, Fairfield; junglejims.com), a mandatory destination for those visiting Cincinnati.
The massive grocery store doubles as a walking safari, with animatronic animals playing ’60s pop hits on repeat, and a comprehensive shop stocked with global delicacies and ingredients from every corner of the world — one-stop shopping where you can buy durian fruit, live lobster, French chocolate and frozen kangaroo meat all under one roof.
In 2019, Bridges doubled up and opened a second location right by the Hamilton County Courthouse in Cincinnati’s Central Business District. It amply serves the downtown lunch rush: bankers, prosecutors, defendants, clerks and bailiffs alike all line up for a rice bowl and momos around noon.
“The main thing is what my mom’s dishes have to offer, that we’ve been able to serve the people and make them happy,” Ash Chipalu said. “I enjoy her cooking so much, and that is why I believe in our food. Nepali food is so good, and there are so many people who are not aware of Nepali dishes.
“That is why we are so happy that we can bring this different food to people who don’t even know about Nepal, and they can have it and be happy with the food. We’re grateful.”
Sean M. Peters is a freelance writer.