“Namaste,” says a small woman in a voice two decibels above a whisper. She pulls herself out of a shallow bow, her hands joined together as if in prayer. She opens her hands, gestures to a small, humble dining room and leads us to a white-clothed table, then disappears to get drinks.
Soon she returns with a tall mango lassi and spicy masala tea. The lassi is sweet and smooth with a heady tropical note. The tea has a soothing warmth only partly due to its temperature. Fast on the heels of the drinks, a man whose entire face seems to smile arrives with crisped pappadam flatbread and chutney. Vivid green like fresh-cut grass, the mint chutney is refreshing and cool, then hot on the finish. The tamarind chutney is tart and sharp with an earthiness in the background.
By highlighting this region that blurs the line between India and the rest of Asian, Namaste quietly sets itself apart.
Next to grace the table are chicken momos, plump dumplings stuffed with ground meat. The chicken is heavy with aromatic spice. Garlic? Definitely. Ginger? No doubt. Cumin? Just a hint. The dumpling’s steamed, pliable wrapper easily holds up to the accompanying achar, a mildly tangy tomato salsa.
And then onto chicken vindaloo. Soft potatoes and succulent chicken swim together in a fiery vinegar sauce. Racy, bold and potent, the dish is a conspiracy of want and need: needing to see the vindaloo through, wanting to prove you can.
The dishes never stop coming. Baskets of naan disappear moments after they are deposited. Plates of paneers make appearances, from green peas whose skins burst with each bite to creamy spinach, each blended with homemade cheese that lingers on the palate. Gifts from the tandoor perfectly pairing tenderness with char, divinely seasoned curries and every incarnation of spinach make their way across the table. Each is set apart by a touch of cream or a single spice.
No dish disappoints. Sure, there are occasional imperfections. A little too much garlic or pepper here and there; but all are nearly imperceptible. These little blips are easily overshadowed by unflagging service and a strict sort of politeness that manages to come across as gentle and giving.
Truth is, there are a few Indian restaurants in the area offering comparable food. They all have buffets and excellent service. But Namaste, with its Nepalese emphasis and unassuming home in a well-worn Rio Rancho strip mall, has a different feel to it. Virtually unheard of in Burque, the Nepalese dishes throw noodles and dumplings into the Indian repertoire. By highlighting this region that blurs the line between India and the rest of Asian, Namaste quietly sets itself apart. There's something else, too, that I can’t quite put into words—decidedly no position for a writer.
Maybe it’s right back where we started with that simple greeting. Namaste. That small bestowal immediately transports you, suggesting that you haven’t only walked into a restaurant but a little piece of a homeland at least an ocean away. The sentiment and the place are both worth revisiting.
The Alibi recommends:
• Masala tea
• Chicken vindaloo
• Chutney and wonder at what a simple greeting can convey
Namaste, 1520 Deborah SE, Rio Rancho, 896-3126. Hours: lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., dinner 5-10 p.m. Open every day. Price range: $7.95 (vegetable dishes) to $20.95 (rack of lamb). Ambience: Doing their damnedest in Rio Rancho. Credit cards, large parties, catering.