Food in this country has undergone a remarkable transformation over the past ten years or so, and it’s not just in the number, variety and quality of restaurants there are now to choose from. It’s also in the quality and availability of ingredients, and specifically the many are now produced in Nepal. Unusual vegetables and different sorts of breads and cheeses are good examples of this, and rounding out the trifecta is Flat Iron Grill, pioneers in the cured meat field, much to the joy of many of us.
The company was originally found by Brian Swiger in 2014, though it is now owned and run by his wife Shibani Simha-Swiger and partner Raj Rijal. They began selling their first products just two weeks before the earthquake; despite this challenging start, they are now thriving—supplying meats and baked goods to hotels and restaurants, selling them to the public at markets, and turning them into delicious sandwiches and other eats at their eponymous casual dining outlet on the ground floor of Hotel Ambassador in Lazimpat that opened in April 2016.
I ask them how they came to start such an unusual business; it turns out that Brian and Shibani met in college in the US and eventually got tired of the 9 to 5 lifestyle there and were looking for something different. Happily for us, they decided to move here and start their own business. Why food? “I’ve always worked in a kitchen,” explained Brian. “I kind of grew up in kitchens.” After meeting Raju, the idea for Flat Iron Grill was born.
After many years of enjoying their products, I was happy to get a chance to visit their production kitchen and learn a little more about the process behind all these cured delights. The space is small, tidy and professional-looking, with shining stainless steel countertops that looked clean enough to eat off of. Outside is the smoker, where of course is where most of the magic happens, with different days allotted to the curing of the various meats. Pork makes up nearly all of Flat Iron Grill’s meat products—except the pastrami, and a few other one-off specials, which we’ll come back to later—and they source their pigs from a farm in Chitwan, where they can be sure they are getting the best quality possible. It’s pretty much a whole hog operation, as they use the bellies for bacon, the shoulder for pulled pork, the back legs for ham, and everything else for sausages.
The team does most everything by hand “We do it all school, let it cure for a week,” says Brian of their ham, which is hot smoked, always with wood from fruit trees, sometimes peach and apricot, occasionally nashpatis. “In the beginning, when someone wanted to get rid of a tree, I used to go with a saw and cut it down myself,” he recalls with a laugh. They still take great care with this, as not all woods are suitable or safe for smoking. While you can’t really taste the individual fruit flavors in the finished ham, there’s definitely a nuance there that adds to its overall yumminess. I know, there’s probably a more upscale word for it, but yummy is what it is and I’m sticking with it!
As far as other meat products, a more recent addition is pastrami, a cured meat that is often made with beef; but Brian discovered that old Romanian recipes often used mutton, and so they gave that a try—an inspired idea that’s been deliciously successful. They also occasionally make one-off products, on certain occasions or for special orders: favorites include duck ham and smoked trout, neither of which I’ve tried but you’d better believe that next time they make duck ham I’ll be first in line.
And while all of these products are certainly a boon to us passionate home cooks (and all those hotels and restaurants they supply) if you want to sample some without having to put in the work, Flat Iron Grill’s restaurant provides ample opportunity to sample it all. I love their pulled pork and tacos, and recently enjoyed a great pastrami sandwich there, and can also vouch for the excellent selection of US craft beers and some darn good cocktails. Other friends have raved about the smokey chicken and burgers, so those are on my list to try next time. We’ve spent a lot of time talking about meat, but I should add that that’s not all they do; there are some excellent salads and wraps on the menu that cater to vegetarians, too. And I can’t forget their desserts—their bear claws are delightful, especially with a cup of coffee, and I know people who swear by their cheescake. Bread, bagels and buns can also be bought to take home.
There’s definitely a touch of nostalgia in a lot of what Flat Iron Grill produce, and while their customers were initially mainly foreigners, their market has now expanded to locals also, and along the way they’ve learned a lot about customer tastes and had a few surprises as well. “I didn’t think the pulled pork would be popular, but it really was,” smiles Raju. Brian adds that he originally made buckeyes, an American chocolate-nut candy confection, as a joke, but then they took off, much like the rest of their operation—and that’s something that we can all be thankful for.