- Photos: James Buck
- Vegetable korma, chicken momos and chicken tikka masala
During a recent interview at a coffee shop in Essex Junction's Five Corners, Dan Raut said matter-of-factly, "I know everyone."
Raut is a Nepali native who has lived in Vermont since 2011 and remains deeply involved in the local Nepali-speaking community. Besides working as an interpreter, he leads a weekly worship service in Nepali that was hosted by the First Congregational Church of Essex Junction pre-pandemic and is now online.
When asked how he landed in Vermont, Raut responded simply, "It's God plan, so I am here."
As for his role as co-owner of the 11-month-old Red Panda restaurant on Burlington's lower Church Street, Raut described it as a natural next step for him and his business partner, Lakpa Sherpa.
"We have such good spices," he said. "Every day we cook at home, and when our friends visit us, they like it. We thought, Why don't we provide this in our community? We decided to form a small restaurant."
Raut and Sherpa opened Red Panda in late July 2019 in the space that was most recently Thai Dishes. They describe the restaurant as Indian, Nepali and Indo-Chinese. The extensive menu includes dishes common at Indian restaurants, such as tomato-based curries and creamy kormas; handmade Nepalese- and Tibetan-style dumplings known as momos; and Nepali specialties, such as thukpa noodle soup.
"We have the best cooks," Raut said, although he declined to name them. "They are experienced. They are Nepali but come from New York City. My friend Lakpa brought them here."
Red Panda closed for a month during the pandemic lockdown and reopened on April 19 with takeout and delivery service only. Last week, the restaurant began offering indoor dining in accordance with current reduced-capacity guidelines. For now, Red Panda has no sidewalk tables like its neighboring restaurants, but Raut said he is working on that.
While travel can be hard on restaurant food, my two recent takeout orders delivered much to enjoy. The spices Raut mentioned were very much in evidence in two vegetarian dishes: whole cumin seeds in the eggplant and tomato curry (baingan bharta) and black cardamom in the not-at-all-slimy fried and then stewed okra (bhindi masala).
"Spices are so important," Raut said. In the Himalayan region, he continued, "People climb the mountains high and low. They do not have medicines; they eat spices. Spices are helpful for the heart. They make us healthy and strong."
The owners order some of the harder-to-find spices from Nepal. "We are proud of that," he said. His business partner, Sherpa, grew up in the eastern part of Nepal near Kangchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world. Later, he worked as a trekking guide throughout the mountains. "He knew that tourists liked the authentic spices," Raut said.
The two vegetarian dishes are among those I'll definitely order again. So is the Cauliflower 65, which I've already had twice.
- Photos: James Buck
- Lakpa Sherpa
The crowd-pleaser of twice-fried, spiced and battered florets is finished with a sticky, slightly sweet red chile-yogurt sauce. According to Raut, the prep method was invented at a South Indian restaurant and originally applied to chicken; the number 65 refers to its spot on that restaurant's long menu. Though the dish is really good as takeout, I imagine it's even more compelling served fresh and crisp right out of the kitchen.
Other dishes on my repeat list include the mellow, delicately spiced lamb korma in a rich cashew-and-coconut milk sauce. The tender nuggets of lamb make a nice counterpoint to the more assertive, but also delicious, tomato-based goat curry with chewy morsels of bone-in meat.
I ordered dishes with both mild and medium heat levels and appreciated the warm burn from the spicier dishes. A friend who likes his food very spicy said that Red Panda has more than met his expectations. Raut confirmed, "If you order hot, we will give you real hot."
On the less successful side, we found the vegetable momos a little bland, although we liked the mushroom version. Our order of tandoori chicken was under-seasoned and disappointingly dry, perhaps not at its best as takeout.
Some ingredients come from Raut's own backyard in Essex Junction. Over four acres, the family grows abundant crops of cilantro, mustard greens, onions, spinach, corn, beans, eggplant, okra, tomatoes and chile peppers.
"But, honestly," Raut said, "we don't grow enough for the restaurant."
He proudly showed off phone photos of last year's peak-season productivity, which he credited largely to his wife, Sadhana Raut. Raut also praised her cooking abilities, saying she invented some Red Panda recipes.
The menu contains a traditional thali section that exemplifies how the Rauts cook for themselves: a platter of small bowls of assorted dishes. "When Nepali eat at home, this is how we eat," Raut said. Because of the challenge of packaging thali, though, it's not an option for takeout at Red Panda.
Keeping the restaurant going through the pandemic has been difficult, Raut acknowledged. "We are challenged with the virus," he said. Although business has been OK since reopening, Raut said that third-party delivery services take a large cut, usually 30 percent of each order.
He hopes to do more large catering orders while the restaurant industry continues to cope with reduced capacity due to safety guidelines. Raut emphasized that the cooks prepare vegetarian and vegan orders carefully in a separate section of the kitchen.
The business partners appreciate their loyal customers. "The American community likes so much our food," Raut said. "They have encouraged and supported us."
The good relationships he hopes to maintain are reflected in the name of the restaurant. The red panda is native to the Himalayan mountain range, Raut explained, and "is very friendly and very kind when trekkers come near. It represents how our community from the Himalayas have become friends with the local American community."