Warily, my food-adventuring party enters the mobile telephone store we found listed on the website for Tibetan Mobile, a Jackson Heights Tibetan restaurant. We cautiously step past a counter of customers purchasing actual devices and work our way down the span of a narrow room adorned with paintings of the Dalai Lama, where hordes of customers are perusing DVDs with titles in a language I do not recognize. We find a makeshift seating area with a humble kitchen in the far corner, where a man holds an infant and helps a woman stuff beef momos and tear thumb-sized noodles, dropping them into a tomato broth with what seems to be a black mushroom floating on top. A handful of customers sit at small tables or on bar stools (though there’s no actual bar), and when we enter, they momentarily look up before resuming eating in silence.
I approach the doorway, and the woman comes over. Beginning the game of charades that so often ensues between two people with minimal common language, she gestures to a neon green poster board, where what appears to be a menu is scribbled in what I assume is Tibetan along with roman letters that spell words I still do not recognize. I point to the Ambassador sticker–a $10 special that lets the chef decide what to send out–and await her response. A radiant smile crosses on her face, and she nods toward the chairs by way of instructing my group to have a seat. That was easier than I thought.
The Ambassador Plate was introduced last week as a program intended to act as a sort of Complete Dummies Guide to Eating in Jackson Heights, where language, culture, and ingredients can easily become intimidating barriers. The program was developed by Jeffrey Orlick, a Jackson Heights resident who is known for his unique food tours and crawls, and it was birthed from the intimate personal relationships he has developed with chefs, owners, and street cart vendors over the past several years. “What this does is create a universal language where anyone can walk into any restaurant and order what the locals eat,” explains Orlick. “What this does is eliminate playing darts with a foreign menu.”
The passport works across several cultures: One participant is a bagel shop, and it hopes to make the American staple and accoutrements less intimidating to a Tibetan.
Orlick believes that, unlike Restaurant Week, eaters exploring the diverse landscape in Queens need a guide more than a deal. The Ambassador Plates are affordable at either $10 or $20, but the intention is for the chef to choose a combination that best represents their restaurant, culture, and menu. Unlike a prix fixe menu, the selection could change daily, or from customer to customer, keeping the chef excited to share dishes with new diners.
The Ambassador Program “is essentially like ordering omakase at a random restaurant,” Orlick says. “I do not make the menus. I anticipate that what they serve each person will change by the day and also evolve with a person’s familiarity with the place–just like omakase should.”
So far, about a dozen restaurants are participating, and they’re indicated by an Ambassador sticker on the door, though Orlick plans to gradually invite more kitchens to join. Each restaurant is about 20 minutes from Grand Central on the 7 train.
Back at Tibetan Mobile, the man is tearing noodles into the soup with the dexterity of a poker dealer flipping cards. The soup–thanthuk–and a basket of steamed momos with a paper cup of butter tea–soon become our $10 Ambassador Plate. I discover that the black bloom are actually Chinese wood ear mushroom that is playfully spongy and meaty yet surprisingly tender. The rich broth, swimming with a chewy Tibetan cousin of orecchiette, is brightened by a sprinkling of cilantro. The momos arrive in a steaming basket and resemble Chinese soup dumplings in both appearance and taste. Cautious bites release a complex broth delicious on its own, followed by herbed beef meatballs that are traditionally made of yak.
We eat hungrily, tasting the accompanying array of pepper-flaked sauces and vinegar mixtures, and begin planning more stops for Ambassador Plates in the neighborhood.