Yamuna Shrestha holds fort behind the cash counter of the Nepali Bhanchha Ghar. Photo: Hari Adivarekar

Yamuna Shrestha casually heaved a 30-pound sack of onions onto her shoulder like it was nothing. The diminutive lady, with searching eyes, walked the sack a dozen steps to the entrance of her restaurant and laid it down on a pile. The much-feted Nepali Bhanchha Ghar is located across the street from the 74th Street subway stop in Jackson Heights, Queens. 

Shrestha, 55, shares the immigrant story of millions of Americans. She moved to New York in 2007, and worked as a housekeeper and babysitter for seven years before she had enough capital to open her own restaurant (and had found a couple of business partners). Since then, the Nepali Bhanchha Ghar has gone from strength to strength, and is now considered one of the best spots in the city to get momos, a pan-Himalayan dumpling that’s much beloved in the Indian subcontinent. They’ve won the city’s “Momo Crawl” multiple times, have been featured in dozens of publications and regularly draw scores of diners seeking their famous jhol momo (dumpling soup), sel roti (a large, donut shaped, savory fried dough) and Nepali barbecue. Having eaten this food in Nepal, I can safely say that the Ghar doesn’t hold back on flavor or tone down its spiciness to suit the milder American palate. 

The momos are so popular that they have to be made in the hundreds each day, by hand. Hemraj Rai, 46, and Maya Gurung, 52, sit in a large basement industrial kitchen and patiently fashion the delicate dumplings one by one, their fingers flying with years of practice. Shrestha does all the rest, tirelessly. 

One moment she’s in the kitchen frying up some chow mein (noodles) with chicken, at another she’s haggling with a vendor delivering goods. She also works the front of house, handles the cash register, serves customers and cleans up. At one point she was on her knees on a stool, wiping the inside of a large rectangular fish tank that sits on the cash counter. A couple of times a week, she heads out for some major grocery shopping in Queens, visiting wholesale supermarkets and food distributors. Although she speaks  little English, she interacted amicably with  a variety of workers; porters and shop owners scrambled to find her the very best produce. 

Shrestha supervises the loading of produce for her restaurant.

In the middle of a relentless 18-hour work day, Shrestha sat down with Epicenter-NYC contributor Hari Adivarekar for an interview about her life, before becoming a restaurateur, and the challenges of having lived away from her home and children for 17 years. 

Epicenter-NYC: How did you decide to come to America and how did you move here? 

Yamuna Shrestha: I first came here to travel as a tourist. My friends who live here told me to stay and that it would be good for me. I applied for my papers and started living here. 

Epicenter-NYC: How did you start the restaurant? It must have taken a lot of work

Yamuna Shrestha: Yes it did. I saved money from working for seven years as a housekeeper and babysitter. I used that to open my own restaurant. It was very difficult in the beginning. Now things are a little better. I did everything with a struggle (laughs). I work seven days a week for 18 to19 hours a day. That’s what it takes.

Epicenter-NYC: How were things for the restaurant during the pandemic?
Yamuna Shrestha: During the pandemic, things were very difficult. During that time I gave a lot of food to the Elmhurst Hospital [Center]. I had given around 200 or 300 plates of momos to them. That’s when I met Mitra (Mitra Kalita, the co-founder of Epicenter-NYC). She’s the one who told me to continue. At that time I wasn’t sure if we could continue and I was planning on getting rid of all the equipment. We didn’t know what was going to happen during the pandemic. 

Epicenter-NYC: Is business back to how it was before the pandemic?

Yamuna Shrestha: Not that much. It’s not like how it was before the pandemic. It will get better now that things have gotten good. Now there’s no issues with going out here and there. We don’t have to wear masks anymore. It was so difficult to wear masks and work, especially in the kitchen. 

Epicenter-NYC: You mentioned that your children are in Nepal?

Yamuna Shrestha: Yes, they are all in Pokhara (central Nepal). It’s been so many years since I came here. I left a three year old daughter and seven year old son in Nepal when I came here. Now they are fully grown up. I haven’t seen them (in person) since I came here. If I go next year, I’ll be seeing them after 17 years (laughs). We video chat every day though. 

Epicenter-NYC: How do you feel about that?

Yamuna Shrestha: What can I feel, I have no choice (smiles). There’s nothing I can do about that. I worked here, opened the restaurant and then in the throes of running a business there was no time. Doing this and that all the time. That’s how the heart forgets by staying busy working all the time. 

Yamuna Shrestha (foreground) prepares some momos for service. Hari Adivarekar

Epicenter-NYC: How does it feel when people say you have the best momos in NYC? 

Yamuna Shrestha: It feels really great, it makes me very happy. It makes my heart happy.  We’ve struggled and worked so hard and achieved this so it feels good. These are the fruits of my labor. 

Epicenter-NYC: What do you think about New York? 

Yamuna Shrestha: I really like New York. I don’t know much English. I only speak Nepali and Hindi, which a lot of people speak here so that makes me feel good. There are many Nepali people here and we celebrate so many festivals and culture. In other parts of America that I’ve gone to there is nobody from our culture. In other places you can’t do anything without a car. Here you don’t need one. You have trains, buses, all the amenities you need. You have so many Nepali people, Indians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, there’s all here. The best thing for me was to be able to communicate with people without the need for English. Now I know a little English but it was very hard in the beginning. I still can’t speak fluently enough but I can get my work done. 

Epicenter-NYC: You’re a woman in the restaurant industry, which is a hard place to work for anyone, but especially for women. What has your experience been like? 

Yamuna Shrestha: I never thought that I couldn’t do this or that work because I’m a woman. I do any kind of work that is needed. It doesn’t matter how tough it is, from my heart I know I can do it.  I’m not one to back down, that’s how much strength and fortitude I have. God has given me this gift. Even now, I don’t have to take any medicine. I pray that I continue to receive such blessings. 

Epicenter-NYC: What do you need for yourself and the restaurant? Yamuna Shrestha: I need news coverage for the restaurant. Through news more people get to know about the restaurant, right? That’s what I need from you media people. There is business to be gained from news coverage.

Hari Adivarekar is an independent photographer, film director/producer, journalist, podcaster, yoga practitioner, urban explorer, and in a different life, a singer in a rock and roll band. His work has...

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