Prem Raja Mahat of Nepal House is an international music superstar in his spare time

Jan 27 2015 City Paper

“Try everything and see what you like,” Kabita Mahat, co-owner of Nepal House (920 N. Charles St., [410] 547-0001) in Mount Vernon, says as she leads the way to the buffet and holds out a heavy porcelain plate. Deep maraschino accents strike out against the stark, white brick walls of the restaurant that was formerly Mughal Garden. Cushy booths line one side, formally clothed tables fill out the big room, and six stools sit neatly at the corner bar. Silver buffet trays brim with cooked foods and fresh colors, while traditional Nepalese music wafts through the speakers. The smell of fenugreek leaf and cinnamon, cardamom and cumin hangs in the air and sticks to your clothes. The lunch rush is over, but the room is nearly half-full of business people and other, more casual diners.

One regular in the buffet line directs a first-timer. “It’s good. It’s all good. Better than anything up and down Charles Street,” he says. Lentil soup, fresh green salad, samosas and dumplings, lamb curry, fresh fruit, and chicken tikka masala are not half the ready-menu dishes to choose from the daily lunch buffet ($8.99 weekdays, $10.99 weekends). The vegetable biryani packs a subtle heat and complements the brighter vegetable flavors. The saag paneer boasts fresh chopped spinach that cuts through the light cream sauce and generous chunks of firm paneer. The lightly fried pakora retains deep spices that cool the palate.

Prem Raja Mahat, honorary consul of Nepal and internationally renowned musician, opened Nepal House with his wife Kabita in December.

Mahat fills his plate at the buffet as the daily lunch session comes to a close. He takes down a massive portion of tandoori chicken over plain rice and a steaming bowl of lentil soup while he explains how he came to America from Nepal in 1996. “There was an American lady, I knew her a long time,” he says. “She used to come to my house in Nepal. She would come for my concerts. I did concerts all over Europe, America, and other countries at the time, and she invited me to come to the U.S.” Mahat was 33 when he moved to Baltimore where his friend lived, even though he had never visited before making the permanent move while his wife and four children were still in Nepal. His family joined him here in 2001.

Mahat started working at Mughal Garden shortly after he moved to Baltimore, and in 2005, he opened a restaurant with a friend, Himalayan House in Locust Point, which is now solely owned by his former partner. “Since then, I opened a liquor store around here with my nephew, Howard Discount Liquor on Howard Street,” he says. Opening his own Nepalese and South Indian restaurant had been on his mind over the years, and when the opportunity to buy Mughal Garden came in August 2014, he took it. “I wanted to mix Nepalese and South Indian food and culture. When I bought this place, I wanted to make it totally new,” he says.

He points out the Nepalese-style roof he had built over the bar which resembles the roof over his childhood home in the Himalayan Mountains. “I wanted people to see a little bit of Nepal. It’s a very small example, a piece,” he says. He also built a stage behind the buffet. His father and grandfather were chiefs of their town and expected he would follow in their footsteps. “But I wanted to be with the people. I love the people. I wanted to sing, dance, and play. I wanted to be an international singer. That was my goal. And I am very happy to be here,” he says. A 2003 profile of Mahat on NPR’s “All Things Considered” said, “Prem Raja was, and remains, one of the most popular singers in his home country of Nepal. Think of him as Bob Dylan of Katmandu.”

Prem Raja Mahat sings (Video by Gabe Dinsmoor)

Now a multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter, Mahat first learned to play traditional Himalayan folk music, called lok geet, in the countryside, “but I was always interested in American country music,” he says. Mahat says there are many similarities between Appalachian and Himalayan music. He listened to artists such as John Denver, Bob Dylan, and Elvis Presley as a child, and fell in love with the feeling in their songs. “When I was a kid, I was interested in listening to music and songs from other countries,” he says. He didn’t speak English at the time, and couldn’t understand what the lyrics meant, but, he says, “I understood the music because that is in my mind. It’s the same kind of thing we do in the mountains, the same kind of songs.”

He collaborates with American country artists in the Shenandoah River area of West Virginia on occasion, but most of his music is in the traditional lok geet style. “Music is the same everywhere, but with a different presentation,” Mahat says. He currently has 58 complete albums, most of which he recorded in Nepal.

When he first moved to the United States, Mahat spent three to six months visiting Nepal every year. “I still go every year. I see friends and family. I record songs, full albums, in my country,” he says. But during the last few years, he has spent more of his time fostering Nepalese culture in Baltimore—11 years ago, he co-founded the Baltimore Association of Nepalese in America (BANA) as a way to bring together Nepalese who live in Maryland, and was named an honorary consul of Nepal in 2010, then was promoted to honorary consul general in 2012.

Mahat hopes Nepal House will play a central part in his role as honorary consul general. He wants to Nepal House to be a center for Nepalese culture, music, and food. It serves as a meeting place for the local Nepalese community, as well as for those who want to visit his homeland. “A lot of people who want to go to Nepal can come here and I can give them information about where to go and where to stay and what to do,” Mahat says. “All friends of Nepal, I want to invite all the people here.” He explains that the United States, and specifically the Mid-Atlantic, boasts the third largest population of tourists who visit Nepal in the world. “That’s why if they know Nepal House is here, they can come and ask questions,” he says.

Mahat plans to expand his services as honorary consul general over the coming year or two to include officially issuing Nepalese visas. He says the local Nepalese community is large, and growing, and many current residents are from his village. “There are thousands of people here,” he says (according to the 2010 Census, the Nepalese population in Maryland was 3,412). He says many Nepalese people have already visited Nepal House.

Mahat plans to open outdoor seating this summer, and around the same time, the stage will be filled with lights, live Nepalese music, and dancing. “My hope is that it’s going to be great,” he says. “That’s why Nepal House is going to be the spot for people to come.”

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