El Cerrito Gets a Himalayan Market 

Wai Wai, yak cheese, and 'Nepalese Tang.' Plus, Cholita Linda won't be coming to Lakeshore Avenue after all.

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For many true food adventurers, restaurants are a dime a dozen, and it's the international markets — tucked away in ethnic enclaves and at remote suburban strip malls — that are often the real treasure trove.

Here in the East Bay, the latest addition is Himalayan Grocery (10340 San Pablo Ave.), a Nepalese-owned grocery store in El Cerrito that had its first day of business on Sunday, April 3, according to Taniya Acharya, whose father, Kiran Acharya, is one of four Nepalese friends who are opening the store together.

The Express recently explored the culinary riches that can be found at East Bay international markets in "Where Chefs Shop," Sarah Burke's story in our March 23 Taste issue. At the time, we didn't know a Himalayan market was in the works. (A post on the Hungry Onion food discussion forum initially tipped me off.)

In a phone interview, Acharya said her father and his friends had talked for years about opening either a restaurant or grocery store together. In the end, they decided that the East Bay already has plenty of Himalayan restaurants. But, it lacked a specialized grocery store catering to the area's vibrant Himalayan immigrant community — all of the Nepalese, Tibetan, Indian, and Bhutanese folks living in the El Cerrito area.

For now, the market isn't planning to carry fresh meat or produce, instead focusing on snacks, frozen foods, spices, and dried goods. And there aren't any immediate plans to sell cooked or prepared foods — so you might find momos (Nepalese/Tibetan dumplings) in the freezer section, but none that are steamed and ready to eat.

You might wonder, as I did, how a Himalayan market would differ from, say, one of the East Bay's many Indian grocery stores. Acharya acknowledged that the Indian and Nepalese cuisines have a lot in common, so there's quite a bit of crossover in terms of the ingredients that home cooks would be seeking. In fact, she said one of the main impetuses for opening Himalayan Grocery was to provide a convenient option for Indian families in El Cerrito and El Sobrante who didn't want to have to drive all the way down to Berkeley to do their shopping.

That said, Acharya said that Nepalese customers, in particular, should be excited to find a wealth of specialty products from their homeland that you'd be hard-pressed to find in other shops. For starters, the store will carry Wai Wai, a popular Nepalese brand of instant noodles. It will also sell orange fruit squash, a kind of powdered drink mix that Acharya likened to "Nepalese Tang." And, perhaps most intriguingly for those — like me — who have never tried it, the store will carry chhurpi, a kind of hard yak cheese that is a popular snack food in Nepal. According to Acharya, the cheese has a mild flavor and is extremely chewy, so the chhurpi eater chews on it in much the same way you would a piece of chewing gum.

Other Nepalese staples that Himalayan Grocery will carry include a wide variety of Nepalese-brand pickles and imported Nepalese teas.

Fish Tacos Aborted

Earlier this year, I reported that diners in the Lake Merritt area would soon be feasting on Baja-style fish tacos, as Cholita Linda, Temescal's wildly popular taqueria and pan-Latin restaurant, was set to open a second location at 3256 Lakeshore Avenue — the old Burrito Shop spot. It turns out I jumped the gun: In an interview, Cholita Linda co-owner Murat Sozeri told me that landlords Barry and Elaine Gilbert backed out of their months-long "handshake agreement" last week, and have instead decided to lease the storefront to a falafel shop — despite the fact that the proprietors of Cholita Linda had already invested a significant amount of money into the restaurant.

Sozeri said he and the property owners agreed to terms and signed a letter of intent late last year — at which point the Gilberts and their broker kept putting off sending over an actual lease for him to sign, all the while assuring Sozeri that the space was his. Then, in early March, the Gilberts finally sent over a lease that, according to Sozeri, was riddled with typos. Sozeri said that when his attorney sent an edited version of the lease back to the property owners, the broker told him the Gilberts were unhappy with the changes — and that they had, in fact, received a stronger bid from another potential tenant. Last week, the broker informed him that the Gilberts had decided to accept the other offer — from the aforementioned falafel shop.

I wasn't able to reach the Gilberts for comment, but in a statement, their broker, Steve Banker of LCB Associates, stressed that the letter of intent was non-binding and said, "During the lease review, Cholita Linda attempted to change the economics of the agreed-to transaction."

That's a claim that Sozeri denies vehemently. He said the only things that his attorney corrected on the lease were typos and overly vague language — everything else was kept consistent with the terms laid out in the letter of intent.

The worst thing about the last-minute change of heart? Sozeri said he's already spent thousands of dollars on an architect, an engineer, a food service designer, and more — all under the assumption that the deal was all but done, and that the Gilberts weren't still entertaining other offers.    

"If there would have been doubt, I wouldn't have done all that," Sozeri said. "We got screwed."

For now, Sozeri isn't considering any other expansion plans for Cholita Linda. It's time to move on, he said. As for the Lakeshore residents who were hoping to have fish tacos close to home — they'll have to move on too.

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