On Cortelyou Road in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, just across from the Flatbush Co-op, and literally on top of the Q station, there’s a scruffy Asian bodega, pragmatically named “Asian Grocery.” It sells frozen parathas and chapatis, along with a large selection of bagged South Asian spices and teas. The refrigerator section, oddly enough, is filled with a good selection of obscure Eastern European beers, like Polish Okocim. Even odder, one wall is devoted to a small sushi bar, where a Nepalese chef slices up basics like tuna, salmon, and yellowtail. The sushi bar is called (naturally!) Himalayan Sushi Inc.
Three Tibetan brothers from the Penpa Tsering family own this convenience store. They opened the sushi joint because they thought the gentrifying neighborhood would go for it, but, more important, they also sold their homemade momos (dumplings) out of the shop. The momos turned out to be so popular that this past July, the brothers turned the narrow, closet-like space next door into Top Café Tibet—now, their homemade momos and Tibetan noodle soups have a proper home, surrounded by colorful prayer flags and a picture of the Dalai Lama. The whole place rumbles cozily when a train comes through.
You could get a California roll at Top Café Tibet, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Instead, bring a beer from next door (it’s BYOB) and then order from the Tibetan part of the menu. The food is, by any standard, excellent, and it’s a happy reminder that New York is still, sometimes, a place where on-a-shoestring, from-scratch family restaurants can thrive.
It’s a good thing that I discovered this café in cold weather, because a meal here seems designed to fatten you up for the winter. That’s to be expected, as Tibet is generally cold and arid, and the diet revolves around barley and yak meat (in Brooklyn, you get beef instead); the higher up in the mountains you go, the fewer vegetables are available. The café’s menu is heavy on the lamb and beef, although there are plenty of potato-ey, cabbage-y options for vegetarians. Chicken shows up frequently, too, although it’s not a protein often eaten in Tibet. For carbo-loading, there’s sticky, fluffy white steamed bread (similar to Chinese mantou) called tingmo, and tsampa, a roasted-barley flour starch that bulks up soups.
Top Café Tibet’s menu nods to the country’s Chinese and Northern Indian influences, with dishes like chow mein, chili chicken, and pork and ginger chicken. Those tend to be fine, but the best choices are listed under “Tibetan Specialties.”
If you only order one thing, don’t miss the beef momos. The steamed dumplings are deluxe, beloved dishes in Tibet, and the Penpa Tsering family eats them on special occasions. The crescent-shaped beef variety has a thick, chewy, fresh skin; nip it open, and beefy broth comes oozing out, along with fragrant steam. The juicy ground-beef orb inside is flavored with ginger, garlic, and onions. Even better is the gigantic momo, called paysar momo, listed under the appetizers—it’s the size of a softball and harbors an entire boiled egg along with spiced beef.
The chicken momos are less flavorful but still good, especially with the restaurant’s homemade, mustardy-hot (or extra-hot) sauce to perk them up. The vegetarian momos, though, seem like sad, health-food-store fare, filled with bushels of shredded cabbage.
The sha-baklap are also noteworthy in the beef-bomb category. More of that garlicky ground beef gets swaddled in fresh dough, formed into a neat disk, and deep-fried. It’s like the best possible version of a Hot Pocket. You can tell that the dough is made from scratch—it’s toothsome and fragrant. On the appetizer side, dropa is also gloriously meaty. The brick-orange stew of spongy beef tripe is ringed on the sides with spicy orange oil.
The homemade soups are slightly more restrained but still hearty, cold-weather fare. The best one, thenthuk, which comes from the northern Tibetan region of Amdo, is full of confetti-like, hand-torn noodles. They’re thick, chewy tabs and the size and shape of postage stamps—at the restaurant, the family makes the noodles from wheat flour, but in Tibet, the noodles are made from buckwheat. They flutter in a thick broth that’s the color of tea from the cottage cheese its stirred in; it tastes slightly milky and mildly bovine. The tsam-thuk (“Tibetan nomad soup”) has a similar broth, but skips the noodles in favor of tsampa. The soup is augmented with shredded daikon, carrot, spinach, and a light sprinkle of salty cheese.
Vegetarians will be jealous of their momo-eating friends, but a few veggie dishes are worthwhile. La-phing is described on the menu as a street snack extracted from mung beans. It turns out to be a dish of clear, gelatinous mung-bean cakes in a tangy red sauce of vinegar and garlic—it seems like it would be difficult to eat standing up, but what do I know? The chana-khatsa is reminiscent of northern Indian chickpea dishes, but this one is drier—a toss of white and black chickpeas, gritty with spices and zipped with lemon.
Dishes like lamb curry and pork chili are fine, but seem to be gestures toward what the owners think people might like, and they lack the soul of the more traditional Tibetan dishes. Still, nothing on the menu is more than $10, so you can afford to graze your way through it. At the end of the long, narrow dining room, there’s a small counter with ready-made salads and curries, where you can take a look at the daily offerings. Just beyond the counter, you can hear the sputter of the oil and spices from the curtained-off kitchen. In warmer weather, you can sit in the small outdoor seating area that looks directly onto the Q train tracks. This makes for a good evening, especially if you combine it with Polish beer. Or Tibetan butter tea: a brew of tea, salt, and melted butter. Hot, salty butter is exactly what I need to get through the winter.