There’s nothing so discouraging as a dumpling that falls apart. A dumpling is like a nicely wrapped gift, bearing not only its filling, but the pleasures of anticipation, suspense, and ultimate gratification. When a wrapper shreds at the touch of a chopstick, or sticks to the bottom of the steamer until it rips apart, a little piece of my soul dies.
That’s why after a couple visits to Logan Square’s Nepali Chiya Chai Cafe, I was left an empty, glassy-eyed shell of a being. Five varieties of momo are available, and each one looks structurally sound: neatly, evenly pleated wrappers that conform to the shape of the filling inside. The flavors are, for the most part, delicious: gingery, spicy ground bison, dill-forward lamb, ground pork ever so slightly sweetened by red onion. The only one I have any complaints about is the sloppy, bland all-vegetable version, which tastes like something pulled out of The Moosewood Cookbook for Geriatrics. But the real downside is the wrappers. Nearly every dumpling I moved toward my mouth ruptured, spilling its contents onto the plate, and necessitating remediation by spoon.
Fortunately Chiya Chai has a lot more going for it than momo. Its whole reason for being is masala chai, the milky spiced-tea potion that originated in northeastern India and slowly spread through the machinations of the British East India Company. The Shrestha family that opened the spot in a bright airy space back in June has been importing tea from Nepal since the 70s, and they’re presenting an almost dizzying variety of ways to drink it. There are three base teas—black, green, and rooibos—to be blended with a choice of whole, skim, almond, or coconut milk, and then different chai blends, from the relatively traditional masala, redolent of warming spices, and spicy masala, tasting of gingersnap, to more intercontinental experiments, such as dark chocolate-spearmint and caramel-sea salt, to mixes like fresh turmeric curry and black cardamom with purported Ayurvedic applications. Those can be balanced by spiking the chai with your choice of booze, or they can be ordered iced, though don’t make the mistake I did and request that with the salty pink Himalayan with almond butter. The ice doesn’t allow the almond butter to disperse, so it just settles to the bottom of the cup like mud.
Apart from the momo, there’s an impressively varied food menu, beginning with British-style savory pies with subcontinental fillings like chicken curry and spicy minced pork. The crust on these, while not rivaling the buttery goodness of a Pleasant House pie, is nonetheless flaky and rich, a worthy delivery vehicle.
Four curries are on offer, from an assertive vegetable jalfrezi to a mild pork vindaloo, and there’s an assortment of small plates and sides, including fries (thick, hand cut, and undercooked) smothered in curry sauce and a complex raita with black mustard seeds and tart green apple slices. But the most visually arresting and irresistible item on the menu is the chiya chile potatoes, a chunk of honey-glazed spuds crusty with crushed red chile flakes. It’s just the thing to pair with a cuppa black pepper-clove. v