When an established restaurant opens another location, it can test both the eatery and its customers. Will the addition start a successful chain or strain the operation?
After Marty's New York Bagel Deli abruptly closed in February, a spot in the Northern Lights strip mall anchored by REI was up for grabs. Yak and Yeti, a nearly 5-year-old Spenard restaurant specializing in cuisine from India, Nepal and Tibet, opened up a second location in the space in May. Both restaurants are run by husband and wife team Lobsang Dorjee and Suzanne Hull.
While the original location is a traditional, sit-down restaurant, the new spot has an express feel. Hull said it's designed to be a grab-and-go eatery for diners looking to get something besides the typical fare on their lunch hour. Patrons order from a counter and are called by name when their dishes are ready. Silverware and water are self-serve.
Display cases are still prominent along the front counter, but instead of Marty's bagels, they are now partially lined with cookies, cupcakes, éclairs and other pastries. An extra display sits unfilled and off to the side, under the gaze of a Dalai Lama poster.
Hull said baked goods are new territory for the restaurant, but they've been successful and attract customers who may not be familiar with the regional cuisine.
"It draws people in. People who don't know the food or think it's weird will come in and try it after they have their cookie or cupcake," Hull said.
During a noontime lunch on a recent Tuesday, there was a short line at the counter, and the restaurant was half filled with chatting couples and solo diners focused on laptops.
I got a rice bowl with palak paneer and chicken tikka masala ($8.99) and a Delhi iced coffee ($3). My friend ordered a lamb gyro ($9.99, also available with chicken $8.99) and an iced Djarleeng chai ($3, also available warm). While waiting for our food, I surveyed the restaurant. There was a pile of equipment stashed not so subtly in one corner, and some of the shelves in the wide-open kitchen held stacks of odds and ends. Luckily, our food was up quickly and was much more engaging than the décor.
The rice bowls ($8.99 for two items, $9.99 for three) are the best showcase of Yak and Yeti's exotic menu. They're available with vegetarian options such as lentil dal and yam tikka masala or meaty offerings like pork vindaloo and beef curry. No matter how many items you have, the entrees are the same size, with dine-in orders served in Fiesta dinnerware bowls.
My dark green palak paneer was a tasty mix of rich spinach curry and chunks of house-made cheese. The chicken tiki masala had big chunks of moist chicken and had a bright and light flavor to match its radiant orange hue. I mixed the entrees up with the rice they sat on top of as I ate and had soon cleaned my bowl. The iced coffee was sweet and refreshing.
The gyro's pita was stuffed with bite-sized strips of warm and tender lamb meat, shredded lettuce, diced tomato and julienned cucumber. Instead of tzatziki, the Greek yogurt sauce often found on gyros, this one had raita, a Southern Asian yogurt sauce. It was a nice and spicy complement for the lamb. The chai was milky and sweet with a subdued bite of chai flavor.
On my next trip I ordered a shapta sandwich ($7.99) and picked an oatmeal raisin cookie sandwich out of the display window ($3).
My sandwich came out on the restaurant's turmeric baguette. Shapta, a Tibetian stir-fried pork, is one of the restaurant's signature dishes, and it was juicy and delicious. The sandwich was served wide open and was a bit hard to handle when closed - I chomped at it sideways like a taco. Still, with meat that good, I didn't mind. It came with mayo, stone ground mustard, lettuce, tomato and onion.
For dessert, I had the two oatmeal raisin cookies joined by a light frosting. They were a bit hard and a disappointing finish after the stellar sandwich.
Hull said the restaurant has already had several bakers in the short time it's been open, making consistency difficult. However, a new one was just hired and she is optimistic about the change.
I expected the Southern Asian dishes at Yak and Yeti Cafe to be rich and flavorful, and it delivered. What was surprising was the work-in-progress décor and baked goods. But, my orders came up so quickly I barely had time to analyze the space and the sweets make strategic sense. The good eats and prompt service make the café a great option for fans of the original Yak and Yeti and diners looking for a quick bite.
By Spencer Shroyer
Daily News correspondent
Alaska Dispatch Publishing