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Mention Jackson Heights, and Indian boutiques and restaurants instantly spring to mind. But gradually the neighborhood has been changing, as businesses from Nepal, Bhutan, and Tibet have moved in. Latest to arrive is Phayul (“Fatherland”), a Tibetan café that occupies a second-story space at the corner of 37th Road and 74th Street, a yak turd’s throw from the subway stop.
Though the banner flapping high up above is easy to spot, finding the restaurant is more of a challenge: An obscure door on 37th Road leads past computer-repair and beauty-product stalls, up a steep, cluttered stairway that bends acutely to the right. Having completed the upward trek, you find yourself in a veritable Shangri-La, where tables vertiginously peer down upon the colorfully dressed shopping throngs below, as a framed photo of the Dalai Lama beams benevolently from the wall above the cash register.
The kitchen is an integral part of the dining room, and you’ll be immediately aware when the chef begins frying chilies, because a thin, hot mist forms in the air. Though Tibetan food is traditionally meaty, starchy, and bland, many dishes on Phayul’s menu flaunt amazing quantities of hot peppers. One evening, my mind was blown by dofu khatse ngoen ma ($5.99), a generous bowl of bean curd in a thin brown sauce seasoned with spring onions and ginger. The minute I bit into it, my mouth was suffused with the tingle of Sichuan peppercorns. I immediately Tweeted, “Why are there Sichuan peppercorns in my Tibetan tofu?” And within minutes came a reply from @zacharymexico: “There are lots of Tibetans living in Sichuan.”
Indeed, the province lies directly east of Tibet, and reconfigured Sichuan fare is a major presence on Phayul’s menu. Chicken with peanut ($7.99) is a classic Sichuan recipe, a stir-fry of poultry fragments with onions and green chilies heaped with cilantro and raw peanuts, making a very pretty dish. Many appetizers will remind you of things you’ve eaten in Sichuan restaurants, including cold salads of cow tongue and sliced beef, slicked with chile oil, and heavily laden like a Sherpa with more peppercorns. Shredded raw potatoes with fresh chilies is another standard, making you wonder why Westerners always insist on cooking their spuds. The waitress will offer a cup of boecha, the butter tea of Tibet, which will help stanch the tingle and burn.
The Indian-leaning curries you might expect are largely absent, though there are Indo-Chinese dishes of the sort that have become wildly popular over the past decade in South Asia, and worked their way onto nearly every Indian menu here. One is “chilli chicken” ($6.99), a dish that has bounced from China to Indian, then back to Tibet, like a tennis volley with the Himalayas as the net. Other dishes on the menu such as green beans with black-bean sauce and vegetable fried rice show the debt of Tibetan cuisine to blander Cantonese cooking styles.
But Phayul is also strong in Tibet’s most traditional cooking. This includes hearty soups served in family-size bowls, steamed breads and stuffed dumplings, homemade noodles, and unusual appetizers. In the last category, Phayul turns out an amazing blood sausage called gyuma, lurking under the innocuous menu translation, “fried sausage.” Colored the deepest shade of gray-purple, and ensconced in a sheep’s intestine of exceedingly large caliber, it comes tossed with raw onions and chilies and flings off a loamy odor. Another memorable app is laphing ($2.99), a bowl of quaking mung bean jelly strips, deathly white and semi-translucent, served in a sour soy sauce.
The best soup possesses the lisping name of thenthuk ($5.99), teeming with delicious homemade noodles in ragged swatches—a pasta shape the Italians never imagined, and one well-suited to hogging the spotlight in its simple broth of greens and scallions. Marrow bones are used in another soup, tsak sha la kor, which also features sliced daikon radish (the premier Tibetan vegetable), and whole dried chilies—which in this case furnish more bright red color than flavor or heat. The broth is milky and mellow. Any of the soups are best eaten with a ting momo or two ($1 each)—the fist-size steamed buns of Tibet, reminiscent of northern Chinese bao.
No dinner would be complete without a basket of the outsize dumplings called momo. The beef version is good, but you should order the shogo momo, which come filled with potatoes instead, with herbs and other vegetables to modify the terrain. You’ll need the extra energy for the return hike down the mountain after your meal.
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