Bridges Straddles the Pandemic and Possibilities

When life gives you lemons, says the Chipalu family, make gundruk and frozen momos instead.

Ash Chipalu stresses two things when discussing Bridges, his family’s restaurant: first, that his mother deserves all the credit for their food, as it reflects her vision and recipes; and second, that they’ve been fortunate over the past year. As the pandemic drags on, his main note is gratitude—for his family, for the neighborhood support, and for the food scene niche they’ve found. This COVID-19 crisis, one senses, is nothing they can’t handle.

Illustration by Vidhya Nagarajan 2021, Levy Creative Management, NYC

The restaurant, in fact, was born out of a much larger cataclysm. Bridges probably wouldn’t exist if not for the catastrophic 2015 earthquake in Nepal that left millions of people homeless, including Ash’s parents, Rose and Manoj, whose apartment building sustained severe damage. Ash had been studying to be a nurse in Cincinnati, and they decided to join him here rather than stay in Kathmandu. Working in restaurants to pay his bills and tuition, he’d often share his mother’s food with friends and coworkers. After years of ecstatic reactions, the family thought, Why not build a business around her food?

The Chipalus started with a stall at Findlay Market and tables at farmers’ markets in Madeira and Northside. They caught the attention of a building owner with an empty retail space on Northside’s main drag, Hamilton Avenue, and opened their first brick-and-mortar location. It was soon followed by another one downtown.

When the pandemic hit, their origins in the farmers’ market scene were helpful. The Bridges focus on a mixture of items, all combined in a single bowl, enabled the family to switch to carryout without reinventing their menu. “We got really lucky with our food style,” says Ash. Much of it is easily portable—things like momos, samosas, big bowls of mixed curries—and translates well to an online ordering app.

Newari cuisine, the distinctive flavors of the tribe that has historically lived in the Kathmandu Valley, might be surprising to people expecting Indian food, particularly its Americanized variety. There are similarities in some of the spices and ingredients used, but the Bridges curries are rarely creamy and tomato-based. Instead, they tend to have a thicker, legume-based gravy; a zippy, often gingery flavor; and a separate palette of spices. Ash describes them as a bit lighter than restaurant Indian, with their own unique character.

COVID has done its damage, of course. The downtown location on East Court Street, which depends on workday foot traffic, closed for several months. Like most people in the industry, though, the Chipalus saw what they could do with what remained and improvised. The kitchen in the downtown location, which is open again but still slow in terms of its usual business, has become the main prep space for both locations.

The spirit of economy—of turning potential problems and waste products into benefits—is a hallmark of every traditional cuisine. It’s also the origin of one of Bridges’s most distinctive offerings, gundruk, which I’ve never seen available in a restaurant. Rose Chipalu noticed that the restaurant was generating lots of leftover brassicas and greens, things like torn-off cauliflower leaves, and decided to salvage and transform them in a classic Nepali way. The pieces are cut small, soaked in water until they ferment, and dried above the restaurant stove. They’re then mixed with roasted garlic and a variety of spices (you can get a mild, medium, or a spicy version) and served as a kind of chewy condiment. Gundruk is difficult to describe, but I find it profoundly addictive and keep discovering new things to sprinkle it on; scrambled eggs are a current favorite.

Many of the ideas developed at Bridges before the pandemic have come in handy as in-store dining slowed. The momos, a distinctively Himalayan steamed dumpling, were so popular in the restaurant that the Chipalus began selling them frozen, even briefly via pop-up stands inside Kroger stores. Diners can now order bags of them online and pick them up at the restaurant. Quick and delicious, momos have become one of our household’s favorite no-stress weekday meals.

The name of his family’s restaurant, Ash says, is about connection—building a bridge between America and the culture of their homeland. Even as the pandemic has pushed people apart, these connections are clearly holding firm.

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