Of all the groups of people who have settled in Reading and made it their home, you could easily make an argument that few have done more to improve Reading’s food culture than our Nepalese community. I’m not talking about Standard Tandoori – I’m sure it had its day, and I know some people (the Dalai Lama included) probably mourn its passing more than I do. But perhaps more significantly, our Nepalese community is very much responsible for Reading’s love affair with the humble momo.
The godfather of the momo scene, of course, is Sapana Home which has been installed on Queen Victoria Street for many, many years. It is a terrific, completely uncompromising place in that it serves what it serves and has no interest at all in adapting its menu to more Western tastes, but it’s always warm and welcoming to people outside the Nepalese community who want to eat there.
And who wouldn’t fall in love with momo? They’re tiny pockets of joy, you get ten of them for not very much and they’re hugely versatile, whether you want to be virtuous and have them steamed, indulgent and have them seared and caramelised in a pan or Glaswegian and eat the bastards deep fried. You can have momo in sticky chilli sauce, momo bathing in tomato gravy or momo bobbing in soup. National cuisines have been built on less, and although I know that pierogi, ravioli and gyoza have their ardent fans, momo have my heart.
For a while Sapana Home largely had the market sewn up. Sure, there was a pretender all the way out in Caversham Park Village and another at the top of the Basingstoke Road, but for most people momo meant Sapana Home. And then along came Namaste Kitchen, a game-changing restaurant in Katesgrove operating out of the Hook And Tackle pub. Its momo were fantastic, but it also showed that there was so much more to Nepalese food, whether it was exemplary chow mein, chewy, savoury dried mutton, beautiful gizzards or bara, thick lentil pancakes studded with spicy chicken. I went once and fell in love: Reading had never had it so good.
As it turned out it was too good to last, and within a year Namaste Kitchen’s dream team had split up. One of the owners, the legendary Kamal, left the business and the chef went back to Nepal. Namaste Kitchen kept trading, but it bought a tandoor and shifted its menu towards more traditional fare, slightly away from the dishes that made it famous. Kamal set up a new place, Namaste Momo, on the outskirts of Woodley in partnership with a chef from the Royal Tandoori. And the momo there were great, but there was still a friction between the Nepalese and more traditional sections of the menu. Namaste Kitchen was the Beatles of the Reading restaurant scene, and after it split up none of the solo projects quite recaptured their genius.
Fast forward to 2022 and Kamal has now left Namaste Momo as well. He’s in the middle of fitting out his new restaurant, Kamal’s Kitchen, on the Caversham Road: appropriately enough it occupies half of the space that used to be Standard Tandoori, a nice way of passing on the torch. If Kamal’s Kitchen turns out to even half as good as Namaste Kitchen was in its heyday it will be a fabulous place to have dinner. But today’s review is about a total curveball, a new pretender to the momo throne that has come out of nowhere: Momo 2 Go, a little joint down on the Oxford Road.
Momo 2 Go first came to my attention late last year, but by the looks of it it actually started trading, on the down low, last spring. It’s in a small site just before Reading West Station, with pictures of the dishes Blu-Tacked to the window, and despite the name it does have a handful of tables for dining in. But I fired up its website (they handle deliveries themselves and don’t currently use Deliveroo or JustEat: good for them) on Saturday night and decided to order a takeaway for two to stave off the winter blues.
Here’s something I really liked about Momo 2 Go’s menu – it was compact. Many of Reading’s Nepalese restaurants give you a plethora of choices, not including the huge number of ways you can customise your momo experience, and the stripped down simplicity of Momo 2 Go’s offer was a real breath of fresh air. You can have your momo steamed, in chilli sauce, in a tomato gravy or “fired” (which I assume is a typo), but that’s it. You can order chow mein or fried rice, and there’s a smallish section of sides, but that’s your lot. The water is not muddied with a crossover into more conventional Indian food or street food, there are no samosas, or chaat, or dosa. You go elsewhere for that, the menu says, and you come here for your momo. I wish more restaurants appreciated the feeling of confidence this approach instills, but I’ve been saying that for years and I’m probably not done saying it yet.
This also meant that between us Zoë and I could order a hefty cross-section of the menu – five dishes in total which came to just shy of forty pounds. That included two pounds fifty in service and delivery charges, which gives you an idea of pricing. None of the dishes costs more than a tenner and the majority are around seven pounds. We ordered at twenty to seven and the website said we’d be waiting around forty-five minutes. And pretty much bang on the dot our delivery arrived, brought to our door in a Mini which I suspect might have been driven by one of the owners. The greeting was smiley and friendly, the delivery prompt and piping hot: it’s easy to forget that most of the time, all the middle men like Just Eat and Uber Eats do is cock things up, and allow you to track how badly they’re cocking things up in something tangentially related to real time.
Our first two dishes were variations on a theme: Momo 2 Go’s chow mein, one portion with pork and the other with sukuti, dried meat usually made from buffalo or lamb. The first thing to say about this is that I’ve had chow mein from a fair few Nepalese restaurants and it’s often as beige as beige can be. But Momo 2 Go’s was pleasingly speckled with colour and life – a flash of red chilli here, a verdant glimpse of shredded cabbage or spring onion there.
It felt fresh and vibrant, and teamed up with their impressively decongestant chutney (again, a step up from the one you get at Sapana Home) it reminded me that I think I prefer Nepalese chow mein to its Chinese cousin. But the real MVP was the sukuti – dense, chewy nuggets of savoury joy that transformed every forkful they stowed away on. I just wish there had been a few more of them – which might say that the dish was slightly out of balance, or might just say that I was greedy. The true answer’s probably at the midpoint, and besides, the dish was only eight pounds.
“You always complain that I order better than you, but I think you win this time” said Zoë. Her chow mein had pork in it (because asking Zoë to order something other than pork is to engage in a futile battle against centuries of Irish forebears) and for what it’s worth I thought it was quite nice. But it wasn’t the sukuti: Momo 2 Go sells sukuti on its own, for nine pounds (ten if you want it with beaten rice and pickles) and next time I’ll have to order a separate portion of the stuff to relive that wonderful moment when I took my first bite and knew that I’d picked a winner.
Speaking of winners, we’d chosen chicken choila as a side and again, I’m not sure I had especially high hopes. I thought it would be nice enough – it’s spiced, grilled chicken after all – but I’ve never had a choila in a Nepalese restaurant that was a feature attraction in its own right. But this was. A tub full of beautiful pieces of chicken thigh, cooked just right, not bouncy but with enough firmness left, blackened and coated with a sticky fieriness that started to make your eyes water by the end.
I really loved this dish, so much that I don’t know how I could avoid ordering it again, except maybe to try the pork next time. We raced through, almost wordless with delight, and both offered the other the final huge, succulent piece of chicken. “No, you have it” said Zoë and, realising that if I refused one more time she would totally eat it I gratefully accepted her offer. I don’t remember whether she said at the time that it was fucking good – I know it’s the kind of thing she would say, but I don’t want to invent a memory. But either way I’m saying it myself, right now.
I’ve saved the momo til last, and ironically they were the dishes with the most room for improvement. But even then, they were still really very good indeed. Let’s start with the lamb chilli momo, which were the most problematic. Which is a pity, because all the elements were present and correct, almost. The chilli sauce was an absolute beauty – a glossy, hot, sour and sweet doozy that clung to every single momo. Kamal once told me that the secret ingredient in the chilli sauce at Namaste Kitchen was Heinz tomato ketchup, and this reminded me of that but with more of a barbecue sauce note. And the filling, coarse minced lamb, was extremely good.
But the problem was that because of the way the momo had been assembled, there just wasn’t enough of the filling. Most of the momo I’ve eaten tend to be crimped along one side into a half-moon, like a gyoza, which means that the filling gets to take up plenty of space in the middle. But these momo had the dough gathered at the top, like a little pouch. Nothing wrong with that, of itself, but it meant that the filling was largely taken up with a heavy, stodgy knot of dough that didn’t leave enough room for the lamb (it’s also the reason I’ve never quite taken to khinkali, the momo’s Georgian cousin). Even so, what lamb there was and what dough there was, speared onto a crunchy piece of onion and taken for a swim in that sauce made for a very agreeable mouthful.
The chicken fried (or fired, according to the menu) momo were also very good but not quite on the money. These were crimped the same way but the act of frying had formed little chimneys. I suspect they were deep fried rather than pan-seared, because Momo 2 Go doesn’t offer kothey momo, and the overall effect was ever so slightly tough. And again, if I wanted a little more filling it’s partly down to gluttony but also recognition that it was so good, singing as it did with fragrance and what felt like a hint of lemon grass. And again, even if they were a little knife-resistant and a little light on the chicken, they were still fairly stellar when dipped in the chutney.
Around this time last year I reviewed Banarasi Kitchen, in one of my first ever takeaway reviews. It really helped to discover somewhere brilliant, unassuming and under the radar early in the year, to remind me why I do this and reiterate that for every bland, disappointing meal and bandwagon-jumper there’s still the potential for somewhere to come out of nowhere and pleasantly surprise you.
I don’t know if the glass is half full or half empty, and I do know – in the immortal words of Dolly Parton – that if you want the rainbow you’ve got to put up with the rain. But to fend off the occasional disillusionment I do need to feel, especially after a run including Zero Degrees, Zyka and 7Bone, that the next ThaiGrr! might be just round the corner. And that’s why I’m so delighted to have discovered Momo 2 Go this week – another modest but quietly accomplished place that gets so much right. I admire them for the concision of their menu and for sticking to their guns, and I could see plenty of little touches in what I ordered that tell me they care about their food.
It’s ironic that the momo were possibly the weakest thing I had, but they were still pretty good and within touching distance of greatness. I can’t imagine it will be long before I order from them again, and I know I’ll face that agonising dilemma of choosing between the things I know I loved, and the unknowns I might like even better. There are far worse decisions to have on a night when you’re giving yourself a night off from doing the cooking. Try it, you’ll see.
Momo 2 Go
172 Oxford Road, Reading, RG1 7PL
Order via: Restaurant website only