GOLDEN, COLO. — The four-hour round trip commute to school never fazed Lhakpa Sherpa. Granted, this was no ordinary commute for any ordinary person. Before the sun peeked over the Himalayan mountains, Lhakpa loaded his bag and hiked to school from Syangma, a fairly remote Nepalese village neighboring the Mount Everest base camp — crossing creeks, dodging snakes and bears, and plowing through the jungle on his route.
When he finally returned home, famished, his mom assembled a hearty bowl of stew: potatoes and vegetables in a lightly spiced soup.
“Because we lived in a very cold, hard climate in Nepal, the food had to be filling. It had to be a broth. It had to have a lot of stuff in there,” Lhakpa says. “And so Sherpa stew, noodle soup and chow mein really warm you up.”
Memories of home-cooked food stuck with him. Today, Lhakpa lives here in Golden, where he runs the Sherpa House Restaurant and Cultural Center, which has specialized in Himalayan cuisine since 2009. The restaurant dishes out Tibetan specialties such as momos and thukpa, or Sherpa stew, and Indian dishes such as chicken tikka masala and daal bhat. But Sherpa House is not just a one-stop shop to chow on food, beer and chai. After walking through the beautifully landscaped courtyard, customers can also purchase traditional Nepalese gifts, admire a room with decor from Lhakpa’s childhood home and learn about mountaineering from a staff boasting 45 total Everest summits.
One of the most famous Sherpas, Tenzing Norgay, was alongside Edmund Hillary in 1953 when they became the first climbers to reach the summit of Everest. Since then, Sherpas have migrated all over the world. (“Sherpa” refers to a Nepalese ethnic group with origins in eastern Tibet, and many Sherpas share the last name after the Nepalese government assigned it to them.)
Today, more than 200,000 Nepalese live in the United States; the Sherpa population makes up a small fraction of that number. Nearly 3,500 Sherpas reside in New York City, the largest enclave outside of the Nepalese capital, Kathmandu, according to the Sherpa Association in America. But as bigger cities push out small businesses, a reality heightened at the start of the pandemic, Sherpas are fleeing to places such as Colorado for new work opportunities — and the geography. In recent decades, dozens have opened restaurants in this mountainous state.
Around 500 Sherpas reside in Colorado, according to Lhakpa, who says he meets nearly all of their families at an annual New Year’s celebration in the greater Denver area. Most of them come from the Khumbu region of Nepal, where their proximity to the Himalayan mountains allowed them to connect with American travelers and, for some, plan a move to the United States.
Growing up near the Everest base camp, Lhakpa became immersed in mountaineering culture and as a result frequently interacted with American tourists summiting the 29,032-foot mountain. As one of his region’s trek guides, he befriended an American couple from Golden. They invited him to visit their home and eventually, in 1997, sponsored his university education. He has remained in Golden ever since, citing his loyalty to the couple and the vibrant rock climbing community at Golden’s American Mountaineering Center. Slowly but surely, he brought over his family, including his wife, Phurba Dickey Sherpa, who runs the Sherpa House kitchen.
Before the restaurant, Lhakpa had set his sights on the landscaping business. Under the name Sherpa Landscaping, he recruited other Sherpas in the area to tend to his neighbors’ outdoor projects. But in the winter, work dried up, and he had to let his workers go. Leaving Colorado wasn’t on the table, but Lhakpa wanted to keep his Sherpa friends close by. After a few conversations, the idea for Sherpa House was born.
“I said: ‘Oh, we should open a restaurant. It has to be a Sherpa House and Cultural Center so that all the Sherpas work here and can speak the language and eat the food,’” Lhakpa remembers pitching his future staff.
Sandwiched between India and mountainous Tibet, Sherpas have developed their own customs and food culture. Sherpa cuisine may be unfamiliar to most outside the region, but it incorporates familiar elements: Chinese, Indian, Nepalese and Tibetan. What distinguishes Sherpa food is the technique of mixing ingredients. When Lhakpa was a child, certain spices and ingredients were hard to come by in the mountains.
“You don’t have a lot of rice, you don’t have a lot of flour, you don’t have a whole lot of potatoes,” he says. “But you have a little bit of a lot of things.”
With limited ingredients came vast ingenuity. Sherpa chefs “put a little bit of everything” into one pot and create their own version of Sherpa stew, which can range from a thin spiced broth to a thick potato soup teeming with fresh vegetables. The spice should be noticeable, according to Lhakpa, but the ingredient, whether potato or carrot, must truly shine.
“If you taste Indian food, there’s a lot of spice and a lot of rich creams,” Lhakpa says. “But if you taste the Sherpa food, it’s much lighter.”
Three hundred miles southwest in Durango, Karma Bhotia has operated Himalayan Kitchen for 15 years, although he says he never imagined himself in Colorado. Bhotia, who identifies as Sherpa-Tibetan, worked as a cook for eight years in Austria then, in 2000, moved to Pasadena, Calif., where he rejuvenated a failing restaurant. Sunny Southern California tempted him to open another restaurant, but a friend heard that he was looking for new property and promptly sold him on Durango — which is at the same altitude as Bhotia’s birthplace in Chyamtang, Nepal.
“Durango is a perfect place to go, because you are a mountain guide, and there’s a lot of mountains,” Bhotia recalls his friend saying. Himalayan Kitchen has become a fixture in the Durango community. Bhotia buys local ingredients from Durango yak farmers and caters special events for locals. Yak meatballs, tandoor-roasted meats and vegetable curries make up the long menu. On his spicier dishes, he can even turn up the heat.
“In Colorado, many world travelers know spicy food, and so I have to upgrade my spice level,” he says. “In California, everyone is more in the city, and they like more mild and subtle [flavors].”
Beyond the mountains and temperate climate, Colorado contains two culinary treasures found in Nepal: yaks and beer. Native to the Himalayas, yaks thrive at high elevations and help climbers transport essential goods in rugged terrain. In the past 10 to 15 years, more ranchers in Colorado have begun raising yaks and marketing them as a more healthful and leaner alternative to beef. One such rancher is Robert Ferrell, the owner of Chama Valley Meat Company. He lives in Durango and sells yak meat to Himalayan Kitchen and to Tibetan monks in Santa Fe, N.M. Ten years into raising yaks, he has noticed that his Nepalese customers often request primal yak cuts, which provide a different perspective on “how to use every part of the animal.”
Beer is part of the Nepalese mountain culture, too, and it is heralded as a celebratory swig after a long day of climbing. But in Nepal, Lhakpa noticed that any thin, fermented liquid became known as beer. He wanted to show that this drink could be “found in many different cultures, different flavors, different tastes.” After drinking his way around Colorado’s craft beer scene, Lhakpa started Sherpa Brewery, the first craft beer brewery in Nepal. He also serves the beer on tap at his restaurant in Golden.
To preserve their culture, Sherpa restaurateurs have devoted resources to improving their communities in the United States and back in their homeland. Pemba Sherpa, the owner of Sherpa’s Adventure Restaurant and Bar in Boulder, penned a memoir recounting his winding journey to Colorado and his efforts to give back to his community in Nepal. Others raised money after the devastating 2015 earthquake in Nepal and traveled back to their villages to build paved roads, schools and cafeterias. In Bhotia’s case, he recalls the feeling of starving as a child back home, so, through the Karma & Jyamu Bhotia Foundation, he helps fund a lunch program and day care at a Chyamtang school.
“Our responsibility is we should, at least before departing this world, leave it better than what you had when you arrived,” Bhotia says.
These days, Lhakpa no longer has to endure a rugged commute or scrape together food to fill his belly. He has built his own extended community in Golden and created opportunities at Sherpa House for fellow immigrants.
But every now and then, Lhakpa glances over to the Rocky Mountains, where he climbs one of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks for pleasure, and those memories of home — the mountains, foothills and creeks — are still fresh in his mind. “And so those are the king of the mountains,” he says of the Himalayas. “But these, these are baby mountains.”
A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Chama Valley Meat Company owner Robert Ferrell.