Ram Bhulanja and his family are sharing their family recipes from Nepal with the guests at their Chinese restaurant in Glendale.
The family, which has been operating the Royal Garden Chinese restaurant at 206 W. Silver Spring Dr. for the past two years, made the decision more recently to showcase a variety of family recipes for Nepalese cuisine under a separate moniker, Everest Cafe.
Named for the mountain which towers over the Himalayas, the concept-within-a-concept offers guests the opportunity to supplement their orders for classic Chinese and Chinese American fare with the varied flavors found in the remote mountain villages of the Western region of Nepal.
A 7,000 mile journey
Bhulanja, who left his home in Kuine-Mangale at the age of 18, made his way across the globe, living in Nepal’s capital of Kathmandu and then pursuing studies in Switzerland and London before coming to Milwaukee in 1989.
He spent most of his career working in the technology industry before retiring a few years ago. But his dream had always been to operate his own business.
“Ever since I was a teenager, I wanted to run a business,” he says. “I didn’t know it then, but I really wanted to run a social enterprise in which the employees had ownership of the business.”
Inspired by the unfair business practices he saw playing out at the central market in Nepal, where his family would journey to secure daily necessities like salt, oil and sugar, he says the idea for a new (fair) business model began germinating in his head.
So, when he had the opportunity to partner with the owner of Royal Garden and assume operations (and eventually ownership) of her restaurant two years ago, he put his longtime dream into practice, inviting members of his extended family to handle the day to day cooking and operations.
“When they immigrated to Milwaukee, so many of them took jobs in restaurants because food was what they knew,” he says. “So for years, they’ve been working long hours in Chinese and Indian restaurants, and many of them were making little more than minimum wage.”
That harsh reality made Bhulanja realize that he could change their trajectories by creating a work environment that empowered them through ownership.
“I handle business development, while my family handles the operations for the restaurant,” he explains. “And they have ownership here. Our books are open. Our daily sales are transparent. And it is working wonderfully. The people who work here are happy. Everyone is incentivized to make our customers happy because they benefit from it.”
Bhulanja admits that taking over the restaurant just before the COVID-19 pandemic began was a mixed blessing. Fortunately, he says, he was able to use his knowledge of both technology and risk management to improve operations and launch easy-to-use online ordering and delivery systems that allowed the restaurant to not only maintain its legacy customers, but also attract new business.
The Everest Cafe menu
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, they began developing a Nepalese menu. They started off by serving traditional Nepalese momo (steamed dumplings), which dovetailed fairly seamlessly with the restaurant’s Chinese offerings.
Over time, the menu grew from there, created from generations-old recipes that Bhulanja and his wife, Om, have scaled up for the restaurant while remaining true to the integrity of the dishes.
Currently, guests can choose from a variety of Nepalese dishes including chicken and vegetable filled momo served with traditional spicy chili-based sauce (eight pieces for $10.95) and crispy fried samosa filled with Nepalese seasoned vegetables and served with tangy tamarind sauce (two for $4.95).
There is also vegetable pakora featuring seasoned cauliflower, spinach and onion dredged in chickpea based batter and fried until crisp ($5.95).
Nepalese daal made with mixed lentils stewed with onion, garlic, ginger and spices and served with rice is available for $8.95.
Fragrant, flavorful curries are also available including vegetable-based tarkari, a mix of potatoes, cauliflower, peas and tomatoes flavored with garlic, onion, ginger and spices ($10.95); and kukhura-ko masu, a Himalayan-spiced chicken curry ($11.95). Both are served with a side of rice.
For those who’d like to try a more traditional Nepalese spread, there are also vegetarian and meat-based combination plates featuring daal and curry (vegetarian tarkari plate for $15.95 and kukhura-ko masu plate for $17.95).
Guests are also welcome to order a combination of Nepalese and Chinese dishes to enjoy either at the restaurant or at home.
“From the outside, it very much looks like two restaurants,” says Bhulanja. “There are two separate menus from which people can order carry-out. But when customers come into the restaurant, it’s very common for them to make one order with dishes from both menus.”
What’s to come
Moving forward, Bhulanja says he’d like to take the business a step further and separate the concepts, dedicating a portion of the dining area to Everest Cafe. But he says that change may be years down the road.
In the meantime, he says, they will continue to expand the menu slowly and smartly, taking care to remain true to the dishes that his family has passed down through the generations.
Bhulanja says that owning a restaurant has been a very fulfilling way to spend his retirement.
“I’m a very curious person, and I’m always excited to learn new things,” he says. “So this has been a very interesting project for me. I’m learning new things about the restaurant every day. And I’ve been able to create the business that I’ve dreamed about since I was 16 years old.”
Royal Garden (and Everest Cafe) are open Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 8:30 p.m. Both dine-in and carry-out are available, with direct delivery available for Northshore customers. Guests who are farther flung can utilize delivery services including GrubHub, Eat Street, UberEats and DoorDash.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.