Among our handful of restaurants from the ceiling of the world, Tibetan Yak was considered the most authentic. The doughy steamed bread called tingmo and the spice-dusted lamb kebabs had a compelling austerity about them, and the use of elemental and sometimes harsh flavoring schemes added to the feeling that you were dining in a remote part of the world. And there was something about la phing–a mysterious white cube of jellied mung bean laked in sour soy sauce–that suggested craggy frigid landscapes, orange-garbed mendicant monks, and shaggy yaks leaping nimbly from rock to rock.
Apparently New York couldn’t support such a narrowly focused restaurant, or maybe it was that the café’s constituents craved a more cosmopolitan mix of dishes, because one day my friend Dave, who lives in the neighborhood, called up to say Tibetan Yak had gone belly-up. Into its place soon bounded Himalayan Yak, like a new and improved superhero. We arrived soon thereafter to check it out. The interior has been refurbished to be less white fluorescent. Commodious tables patterned like bird’s-eye maple stand amid latticed cordovan walls, which are hung with a discreet number of kitschy portraits of smirking peasants.
The new menu has been decorated with a grainy photo of snowcapped peaks. A yak hunkers in the foreground, looking distinctly Photoshopped. Happily, the menu still includes most of the original Tibetan dishes–la phing, the chicken curry called samdey, momo dumplings, and a host of rib-sticking vegetarian entrées. The new bill of fare has been expanded with Nepalese, Indian, and a soupçon of faddish Indo-Chinese eats of the type currently being offered in a dozen mid-Queens restaurants.
Taking the Tibetan stuff for granted, we cliff-dove into the Nepalese menu. Achar ($3.99) is a Himalayan spin on the pickled vegetables seen on Indonesian and Malaysian tables, sent spinning in an astonishing direction. Crisp white daikon radish, diced cucumbers, and green uncooked peas are enveloped in a gritty orange paste that might be mistaken for vodka sauce, except for the chile afterburn. A smaller dab of this pink pickled slaw comes on an omnibus vegetarian platter–highly recommended–called Nepali dal-bhat (with meat $9.99, without $7.99), which includes four or five small selections plopped on a thali. It’s a perfect introduction to Nepalese cuisine. Not included on this platter, but definitely worth ordering, is sadeko gundruk ($3.99), unappetizingly translated as “dry vegetable.” It’s a heap of fermented, dehydrated, and then oil-drenched greens, about a thousand times better than it sounds. It’s also one of the chewiest things I’ve ever eaten. This is how a yak feels, I thought.
In the section of the long, bewildering menu called Yak’s Special Entrées are a couple of Tibetan dishes not previously encountered. Gyuma ($8.99) includes a collection of 10 loose beef sausages that resemble stubby toes, laced with blood and thickened with barley, doused with an astringent chile sauce that knocks the links for a loop, or if you prefer to continue with the first metaphor, tromps on the toes. In the same section is an import from area Indian-Chinese menus called chilli chicken. Let’s just say it’s not the best version available in Jackson Heights. Finally, there’s chayley ($11.99), thin slices of beef tongue sautéed with garlic, ginger, and green chiles. It’s not yak, but it is very good.