EAST LANSING — Nestled between Wild Side Smoke Shop and China Tong on East Grand River Avenue sits a little slice of Nepal.
“My barbecue, that’s what started this whole thing,” said Yug Thapa, who owns ChiChi and Papa with his wife, Sarjuna. “I work in the IT field. I invite my colleagues and friends to my home, and they liked my barbecue so much.
“People like our spices,” he said. “They love and appreciate the bold flavors. So, a restaurant came into my mind.”
On the walls hang paintings of a typical village in Nepal, the Ohm symbol, prayer balls, a painting of a Buddha sent from Katmandhu, a painting of Mount Everest.
“This is what the temple looks like and this is the Himalayas,” Yug Thapa points out. “And on this wall, this is what a Sherpa’s guitar looks like.”
The restaurant opened on Father’s Day in the space once occupied by Taste of Thai space.
It serves Himalayan cuisine, dishes from the Thapas homeland of Nepal. The flavors rely heavily on garlic, ginger, cilantro, coriander, cumin and other seasonings, Yug Thapa said.
“ChiChi means meat, and papa means bread or anything sweet.” Sarjuna Thapa said.
They also offer vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free options.
There was something else behind the idea of opening a restaurant. Yug Thapa went on the Keto diet a while back and lost close to 50 pounds. He thought a Keto platter would be good. It would offer options.
“There are so many people who suffer from gluten intolerance,” he said. “I knew there was a market, because people are suffering. They don’t have options for many places that serve things like that. So I thought if we could give that to people, maybe it would work.”
The Keto platter offers barbecued ribs, a Keto pancake, greens, eggs, chicken roast and a Keto bomb.
“The Keto bomb is kind of like a dessert that Keto dieters can have,” Sarjuna Thapa said. “They can’t have regular chocolate so this is a chocolate for them. It does not have any gluten in it, and it’s very low in carbohydrates.”
For those just trying Himalayan food for the first time, Yug Thapa recommends starting out with a sandwich, then the baby back ribs, which are already popular.
“It’s a dry rub,” Yug Thapa said. “There are a few other things that we like to keep secret. It has a lot of seasoning, but it’s not spicy in the sense of hot. But you do have the option to order with hot, medium or low heat if you want.
“Once you like that flavor, the platters would be next,” he said. The platters, I wanted to make them as authentic as we can. Hot and spicy is how they’re supposed to be. But we toned down the spices.”
Besides the couple, there’s a third chef, Prithvi Godavarthi. He’s still working a human resources job in Livonia, but cooking is his passion.
“Corn and ribs are a very classic American combination,” Godavarthi said. “Back home, the ribs are not served with corn. The way we made it was to make it more accommodating to the kind of setting we are in now.
“We did make a version of corn, but the corn is very close to what you would find back home. It is spicy but then it has a very mild hot after-taste. It’s not really hot. You can keep eating it.”
Although the Thapas are totally in sync when it comes to cooking and creating, they are opposites when it comes to what they eat.
“I have been completely vegetarian since I was a child,” Sarjuna Thapa said. “I don’t ever remember eating meat. I ate eggs until I was 16, but now, no eggs, either. But I do do dairy.”
Sarjuna Thapa cooks the food, but doesn’t know what the meat she cooks tastes like.
“All these things are my mom’s recipe,” Yug Thapa said. “I didn’t learn from my mom how to cook, I’m just following the taste. I have Sarjuna try different things, I tell her what the taste should be like. She doesn’t even know how the meat tastes. But after one or two shots, she’s got it.
“It’s my tastebuds, my experience, my vision. She’s the executor.”
Yug, however, loves meat. He eats the Himalayan platter every day.
“It’s our everyday food,” he said. “Pork is the best thing for me.”
They met in New Jersey, where he was studying for his master’s degree at Fairfield University in Connecticut. They were married in New Jersey.
The couple lived in Webberville, and in Fowlerville, where Yug worked as a software engineer at Asahi Kasei Plastics. He quit his job there the day after the restaurant opened.
“I figured out I have to give it my full-time attention,” Yug Thapa said. “I have invested a lot of money, and it was either I go back to work or attend to this. I made that call and quit my job.”
Now he’s in it for the long run.
Sarjuna Thapa says her home cooking is based more on nutrition.
“I focus on nutrition more than appearance because I am a health conscious person, and for my kids I cook that way,” she said.
Yug Thapa feels he has made the right decision. He says that by sitting in a cubicle for the rest of your life, you are missing out on so many things.
“This is like an ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ kind of thing,” Yug said. “There’s a party happening every day, people can come here, eat.
“I wish this could be a place where somebody would come in and propose, where somebody would fall in love. Anything can go here. I like that kind of thing.”