Shangri-La's location on East Cotati Avenue opposite Sonoma State University has made it a popular destination for teachers, students and administrators ever since it first opened in May 2004. The food is Nepalese, which means cooking that fuses Chinese and Indian spices, flavors, and dishes and that also retain their own unique character.
The lunch specials ($7.99 Monday through Friday) offer the best deals in the house; there’s chicken or vegetable curry with rice, naan, and chutney. Other unique dishes are the vegetable and meat momas ($8.99 for a plateful) that are akin to Chinese steamed dumplings, and the lamb and chicken curries ($12.99 and $11.99) that are borrowed from Indian cuisine.
Shangri-La serves authentic “Food From the Himalayas,” as the menu boasts. Indeed, it offers cooking that’s out of this world: a taste of distant Asia locally.
Meenakshi Sharma, who owns the restaurant with her brother, makes the yogurts and mixes the spices for her potent curry powder right in house.
Sharma takes orders, too and waits on tables. The most frequently ordered dishes are the fish tandoori (16.99), and the chicken tikki masala ($10,99) that’s made with cream to give it a rich flavor, she says.
Nearly everyone who works in the restaurant is Nepalese, including the two cooks, Bemba and Nima, along with Sharma’s daughter, Natasha. Together, they bring Nepalese food, culture and traditions alive, thousands of miles from their home.
“We want to give people who come here a real taste of Nepal,” Sharma says. “The food we serve is very close to the food we eat at home and it’s reasonably priced.”
Born and raised in Katmandu, the capital of Nepal, Sharma learned how to cook by watching her mother cook. After marriage and children, she learned a lot more by cooking two meals a day for seven people, seven days a week.
But she says that her idea to open a restaurant grew from her experience as a teacher in Berkeley, not as a wife and mother. After giving lessons in Nepalese, she’d invite students to stay and eat with her, converse, and exchange stories. From those evenings in her own home, Shangri-La was born.
“I don’t really know how to cook for just one person,” she says. “I guess that’s a good reason to have a restaurant.”
Sharma has a head for numbers; she didn’t open Shangri-La until she had a sound business plan and secure financing. She’s made some mistakes; a branch that she opened on Lombard Street in San Francisco didn’t make it. Now, she’s found a niche for herself and she’s brought genuine Nepalese food to locals from Rohnert Park and Penngrove to Cotati and beyond.
The dining room is small and fills up quickly Mondays through Saturdays — especially from noon to about 1:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
At Shangri-La, patrons can sit inside, or get some sun in the large, glass-covered outdoor space that’s suitable for luncheons and special dinners. Faculty members give end-of-semester parties here to celebrate with students and colleagues as well.
Longtime Cotati resident, Thora Lares, eats at Shangri-La a few times a month. She always orders the aaloo tiki chaat ($5.99), made of sautéed potato patties covered with yogurt and tamarind sauce. Slices of apple and onions are top the dish.
Thora’s husband, Bill, always orders the chicken tiki tandoori ($15.99). Chicken cubes are blended with spices, barbecued, and then cooked in a clay pot — yum!
A variety of naans – Nepalese breads baked right in the kitchen - go well with the curries, the chaat dishes and the tandooris. There’s plain naan ($1.99) and garlic and basil ($2.99). Brown rice is available as well as white rice, and there’s raita ($2.99), a yogurt and cucumber sauce, plus mango chutney ($1.99).
American and Indian beers, from Miller and Corona to Taj Mahal and King Fisher, which are imported from India, are reasonably priced ($3.49 to $3.99) and there are teas – hot and cold – and mango lassis ($2.99) - sweet yogurt drinks. For desert, there’s kneer ($3.99), or Indian rice pudding.
Sonoma State students, many of whom work at Shangri-La, enjoy the food and savor glimpses into another culture a short walk from residence halls.
“I’m helping them and they’re helping me,” Sharma says. “They merge into my family. I have even taken groups of students to Nepal over the summer break. For all of us, it’s a real education.”
*Many gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan dishes are also available.
Shangri-La: lunch, dinner, takeout, & catering. 1706 East Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park, Calif. 94928. Phone: 707-793-0300. Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and 5:30-9:30 p.m. Check out Shangri-La online here.