Not Your Mama's Momos
As noted in my recent review of Phayul, a new Tibetan café in Jackson Heights, the blocks surrounding the 74th Street subway and bus station have dramatically filled with Himalayan businesses in the past decade. The area currently boasts 11 restaurants serving food from the craggy borderlands between India and China. Each slings its own unique combination of specialties from Tibet or Nepal, or both. A pair of Nepalese establishments that appeared not long ago, Bhim's Café and Lali Guras, provide an interesting contrast in culinary outlook. The mother of all Nepalese restaurants, of course, is Thakali Kitchen on 37th Avenue, which offers the cuisine of the Mustang region in north-central Nepal, along with crisp napery and fine flatware.
Bhim's Café on 37th Road is way more modest in size, price, and the scope of its cutlery. Exterior signage promises green salads and "the best coffee in town," in addition to momos: huge crimped dumplings that, steamed or fried, are the central staple of Himalayan fast food. Inside the storefront find a room with minimalist décor. On one side a glass case displays trays stocked with small, dryish cubes of spice-rubbed meats. Since no other foodstuffs are visible, you wonder how these are going to be assembled into a meal. Indeed, these meats seem inherently nomadic; if you put them in your saddlebags and galloped off into the mountains, they'd certainly keep for days.
The thin, energetic proprietor will gladly help you figure out what to eat. After she takes your order, you'll be invited to climb a stairway in the corner that you hadn't noticed before, leading to a spare upstairs dining room. Eight for $5.99, her momos are some of the best in town, bigger than Japanese gyoza, and tasting of steam and higher elevations. Whether you pick beef, chicken, or vegetable, the noodle wrapper is as translucent as a baby's skin, revealing the pungent cilantro and scallions inside. Other standalone selections include sekuwa ($7.99), a dense plate of bone-in dried goat. The jerky has been fried so that it glistens, making for a long and tasty chew.
Many of the other choices are either Indian-style thalis repurposed in a Himalayan vein, or full-course Nepalese meals called samaybajis. Served at room temp, the vegetarian thali ($7.99) is beyond spectacular: a stupefyingly large serving of basmati rice on a metal tray, with small dishes orbiting like satellites, including daikon curry, a moist mélange of carrots and potatoes, raw carrot slices, and a puréed tomato pickle called achar—all of it demonstrating the popularity of root vegetables in Nepal, which grow quickly without much farming. Surrounding the tray are still more accoutrements, running to plain yogurt, cumin-scented daal, and a saucer of mustard greens, cauliflower, and black chickpeas—making these non-root vegetables seem as precious as jewels.
Samaybajis ($7.99 to $8.99) are full-course Nepalese meals featuring selections from the downstairs trays—goat, mutton, buffalo, or chicken, presented rather comically in a compartmentalized school-cafeteria tray. If only school lunches were so interesting! Slots contain beaten rice, toasted soybeans, and a wad of pickled root vegetables. Cubed meats are tucked away to one side, while a separate serving of the same animal's organs, similarly cooked, is found on the other.
In contrast to the nomadic austerity of Bhim's, Lali Guras—named after the national symbol of Nepal, the bright red rhododendron—offers a menu that encompasses Nepalese, Tibetan, Chinese, and international items. The place must have once been a carryout Cantonese, because color pictures of Chinese dishes adorn the walls, though several are crossed out in Magic Marker. Still available, however, is chow mein ($5), a simple but agreeable nest of noodles, carrots, onions, and scrambled eggs crowned with cilantro. Another legacy item is fried chicken wings, and the momos here come fried, too.
The ragged noodles called thenthuk, served in a rudimentary soup, are worth ordering from the Tibetan right-hand side of the menu, and so is the mutton curry ($5), dreamy in its dark density. On the mainly Nepalese left side, there's a nice goat thali, once again served with offal, and the knotted and steamed bread called tingmo. Unique to Nepal is another bread not to be missed: sel roti ($1), a Yak nose ring of deep-fried rice. Then there's the entreé called "bhutan" ($5). Though you might have hoped for something from Bhutan—a rather obscure country due east of Nepal—the menu turns out to have misspelled "bhutuwa," an unexciting stir-fry of lamb and peppers. Those who long to sample real Bhutanese fare may have to wait a little longer.
For more restaurant coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road, at voicefoodblog.com. Follow us on Twitter @ForkintheRoadVV.
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