As you walk by the Himalayan Kitchen at the intersection of Summer and Bow streets in Union Square, the smell of Nepali and Indian spices and the rich flavors of the cuisine are as inviting as the restaurant’s host — Jeremy “Jay” Lockett.
Jay’s American. Half Jewish and half-Black, Jay grew up influenced by his mom, who owned a catering business, to be warm and welcoming. So you’re probably thinking … how does an American guy start working at a Nepali restaurant?
Well, just over 10 years ago, while working at a convenience store, Jay met his future wife, Rabeena. She’s Nepali.
Despite Somerville having a mix of people and a variety of cultures, Rabeena and her brother Uttam always felt the taste of Nepal was missing from the community. So, a few years after Jay and Rabeena got married, they opened Himalayan Kitchen.
“I promise you, after one meal, you will become a regular customer,” he tells pedestrians walking by.
Most of the passersby don’t even have the intention of going inside, but Jay convinces them to reconsider. It is not abnormal for him to pull people into the restaurant for a quick meal.
On a regular summer’s day, the restaurant has a few tables and chairs outside for people to enjoy the weather. The awning is adorned with lights and red Nepali ribbons with a gold hem.
Inside, the space is small. There are only six to 10 tables and a few more chairs. Each table shares the same patterned table cloth and the decorations from outside follow into the restaurant as well.
On the big wall to the right of the entrance, a colorful portrait of a golden Buddha blesses each diner as they enjoy their meal, with the phrase “May peace prevail on this Earth,” written in Nepali.
The food is freshly prepared by the chefs as customers order it. Ethnic spices and aromas fill the air, and South Asian songs play in the background.
For the six years the restaurant has been open, Jay, Rabeena and his brother-in-law, Uttam, have been building the restaurant from a hole-in-the-wall to a hustling and bustling Nepali restaurant. And a lot of the Kitchen’s loyal, returning customers are people he welcomed in from a singular conversation on the street. Otherwise, people hear about the restaurant from word of mouth.
“Opening a restaurant was never in our plans,” he said, while smoking a cigarette and smiling and waving at the passersby. “My wife was just really craving some homecooked Nepali food, and we couldn’t find any good places here in Somerville.”
Prior to being a Nepali restaurant, the space was a failing Indian kitchen.
“We had to work so hard to take the restaurant from being in the red to being in the green,” he said. “We weren’t even sure if we would make it beyond the two year mark.”
As the restaurant was starting to grow, the three owners knew they had to settle on a menu. About a year-and-a-half in, they finalized their Nepali menu, giving customers the taste of homemade momos — dumplings, with a choice of meat or veggies — and to the level of spiciness they choose. A number of Nepali foods are on the menu, and Indian and American classics also make the cut.
“Because I’m American, I am the connection between Nepali cuisine and American people,” he said. “But the three of us? We bring life to this street.”
What makes it so special?
“I got my people skills from my mother,” he said. “I used to be so embarrassed by her. When I was a kid, she’d wear an ‘Ask me how I lost 55 pounds’ pin on her shirt, just so people would talk to her when we walked around.”
A Brighton native, Jay grew up the middle child to parents who both owned small businesses. While his father wasn’t around as much as his mother was, Jay was influenced by both of them.
“They are the reason I am who I am,” he said. “Them and my wife, Rabeena.”
Family and business don’t always mix, but Himalayan Kitchen is a great example of when they do.
And it shows. There is no shortage of good reviews about the restaurant. On Yelp, a large number of the customers praise Jay for his warmth and his vibrancy.
“We met J! Very friendly guy and the food was delicious … Looking forward to coming back for the food and to see J again :),” one diner wrote.
“…Jay, as usual, was delightful and this time, [he] threw in rasgulla. I always feel guilty when restaurants do this. Next time we will just buy a dessert. I stand by my original review. This place is amazing,” another customer said.
Many reviewers agree the restaurant is a “hidden gem” whose long queue outside the door can speak for itself.
“When you’re nice to people, they’re nice back,” Jay said, after learning about the positive reviews, speaking with passion about the food and the community he and his family are a part of.
“I have a tremendous amount of love and respect for our neighbors,” he said. “They have become my friends.”
“Nothing about our journey has been easy … all of the odds were against us,” Jay explained. “Everyone around us said we couldn’t and wouldn’t make it, yet we made it happen, and we continue to do so.”
As the area has developed, the restaurant has participated in a number of the Square’s and city’s festivals, and the owners hope people continue to love this slice of Nepali cuisine.
“Only Jay can dance to Jay’s tune … people can tell when you’re being disingenuous,” he said. “I’ve gotten to where I am because I am being myself. And, connecting with the community the way I do on a daily basis — it’s priceless.”
Visit Himalayan Kitchen at 40 Bow St., Somerville, MA 02143 or call them at (617) 622-5805