Mustang Thakali Kitchen Scales the Heights of Nepalese Cuisine
Nine years ago, a restaurant appeared at First Avenue and 14th Street offering four Nepalese dishes on a mainly Indian menu and, for a long time, that constituted our sole gastronomic exposure to the small, craggy country sandwiched between India and Tibet. More recently, full-blown Himalayan restaurants have appeared in Queens, filling their bills of fare with Tibetan, Nepalese, and Bhutanese dishes. Among other wonderfully inscrutable things, these newcomers have regaled us with la phings (mung bean jellies), ghundruks (fermented mustard-green stews), and momos (monster wontons).
Now witness the debut of Mustang Thakali Kitchen in Jackson Heights, specializing in a single regional Nepalese cuisine. While the name might sound like a stylish bistro offering gussied-up chuck-wagon fare, "Mustang" denotes a lush mountain valley—once an ancient kingdom unto itself—on Nepal's northern border, while "Thakali" refers to the principal ethnic group that resides there. Though nominally Buddhist, their religion includes elements of Hinduism, and the cuisine's vegetarian-heavy mix incorporates Tibetan, Indian, Bangladeshi, and Chinese influences. But Thakali cuisine is a unique thing unto itself.
No better way to start your meal than with sukuti sadeko ($6.50), a homemade lamb jerky. The meat has a gloriously fibrous texture, tasting of sweet spices and soy sauce. This could be your favorite bar snack (though you'll have to BYOB, since Mustang Thakali Kitchen has no liquor license). The place doesn't pull any punches when it comes to variety meats, and in short order, I paid a visit with the Organ Meat Society in tow. The membership proclaimed bhutuwa ($5.50)—a spice-rubbed appetizer of goat liver, stomach, and intestine—delectable, and also loved pangram fry, a chicken-gizzard sauté. Sadly, the stir-fried lungs, called phokso, were unavailable.
From the vegetarian side of the ledger comes bhatmas chiura ($4.50). Though the menu describes it as "marinated soy beans," the tiny brown beans, so unlike the verdant edamame of Japanese restaurants, have been toasted and incorporated into a salad. The dressing is pure mustard oil, which imparts a strong fragrance and a burning sensation as it slides down your throat. Sharing the plate is a mound of ghostly white chira, or "beaten rice," which is made from grain that has been soaked in hot water, then toasted and flattened. It's a pleasant workout for the jaws, but without discernible flavor. The Japanese would love it.
Other good starters include the bizarre sel roti, a yak nose-ring of fried-rice flour that constitutes the Krispy Kreme of Nepal, and the aforementioned momos, steamed dumplings filled with meat, chicken, or vegetables. Surprise! The cumin-laced veggie version, eight to an order ($6), are tastier than the other varieties. The menu mentions another dumpling, ting momo, but these turn out to be puffy steamed breads similar to northern Chinese bao, only covered with ridges, like a Himalayan landscape.
Most of Mustang's main courses come on a stainless-steel thali (a round tray), anchored by a big wad of starch that's surrounded by smaller dishes, usually including mellow stewed mustard greens, a corrosive mixed-vegetable pickle, spicy homemade tomato chutney, sour yogurt–smeared white radish, and a pleasantly dull potato curry, along with lime wedges and carved vegetable crudite. While the main courses may be identified on the menu as beef, lamb, chicken, or buffalo (subbing for yak, one presumes), the starch always commands center stage.
While simple steamed rice (bhat) or ting momos are commonly used as the thali starch centerpiece, there are a few stranger choices that are, at least for now, unique to Mustang Thakali Kitchen. These demonstrate the unexpected primacy of buckwheat in the region's diet. Not to be confused with the cartoon dinosaur beloved of Mario Bros., yohsi ($10.95) is a heap of kneaded buckwheat starch that resembles a small brown poodle, with a texture similar to African fufu. It comes on a thali with the usual satellite dishes, supplemented by a sweetish yogurt dipping sauce that reminded me of the saffron-laced Gujarati dessert called shrikhand. Alternately, there's ghoken, the same buckwheat starch formed into a thick flatbread and cooked on a griddle.
One night, I came with a crew of friends from the Buckeye State, where no one would think of skipping dessert. Accordingly, spoons flashed in the dim light of the restaurant—decorated with handsome pressed-tin wainscoting and a few tasteful temple carvings—in excavation of kheer (a cardamom-flavored rice pudding) and gajar ka halwa (a loose pudding of crushed carrots, sugar, and spices). The latter is certainly related to Middle Eastern halvah. I leave it to you, dear reader, to figure out how.
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