Bhutanese Nacho Cheese? An Ex-Monk Fires Up Taste Buds in Queens


The next time I have a hankering for chiles and cheese, you won’t find me bellying up at a Tex-Mex joint, dipping chips into queso. Instead I’ll be at Bhutanese Ema Datsi (67-21 Woodside Avenue, Queens 718-458-8588) in Woodside, chowing down on the restaurant’s signature dish: ema datsi, a Bhutanese concoction that arrives at the table looking like a spa treatment for serrano peppers. (In Dzongkha, the national language of the Kingdom of Bhutan, ema translates to chile pepper, datsi to cheese.) The chiles lounge in a pale-yellow cheese sauce so smooth and lush that it almost makes you wish there were tortilla chips on hand. It’s heavenly. It’s also remarkably eco-friendly: A cloudy potato soup, made with the whey left over from the cheese-making process, is served alongside. Farm-to-table missionary Dan Barber may have summoned sustainable magic from pickle butts and juice pulp at his wastED pop-up earlier this year, but this Bhutanese recipe is centuries old. And it tastes like it could have been dished up at a Minneapolis bowling alley.

To soothe serrano-scorched taste buds, there’s Tibetan butter tea, as well as splendidly chewy red rice. Piles of the nutty grain, a core ingredient in Bhutanese cuisine, anchor thali, combination plates that showcase different preparations of pork and beef simmered with chiles or covered in thin tomato curry. (Adventurous eaters can opt for platters made with cow hooves or pig trotters.)

Sha kam datsi, another combination plate, marries datsi with nuggets of dried beef. Think of beef jerky cooked in tempestuously spicy nacho cheese. Sounds like the American Dream — and tastes pretty damn good, too. So does the kitchen’s fried whole pomfret (you can order tilapia fillets instead if you’re averse to head and bones). Stewed tripe, spongy and tender and smothered in a peppery tomato sauce, makes for an almost carnal eating experience. Those whose preferences skew vegetarian should try the potato or mushroom datsi or check out the vegetable options in the menu’s selection of Indian dishes.

The menu includes a Tibetan section, as well as a few Tibetan appetizers. Among the latter: rounds of gyuma, a Tibetan blood sausage that’s as earthy and dark as it sounds, mixed with roasted barley flour. For a Tibetan main course, try momo, pierogi-like dumplings wrapped in a steamed bread called tingmo, filled with either seasoned ground beef or potatoes and chives. These may be ordered fried or steamed; either way, they’re an apt match for the chunky regional hot sauce known as sepen, a rugged chile condiment suffused with dried peppers and spices including coriander and ginger. Puta, supple Bhutanese buckwheat noodles mixed with scallions, green chiles, and a fried egg, shine with a coating of butter, which softens the blow of the peppers. Indian curries, Tibetan stir fries, and noodles round out the list.

Lekay Drakpa, the 40-year-old mastermind behind Bhutanese Ema Datsi, was born in Tibet, reared in India, and for more than a decade studied to be a monk. Seven years ago he gave up the monastic life and set out for New York, landing in Queens and working his way up to the role of manager at a Subway franchise. He dreamed bigger, though. Drakpa is soft-spoken — as one might expect, given his Buddhist training — and in contrast to the heat he generates on the stove, he maintained his cool under pressure during one of my visits, when a group of two dozen patrons walked in from the nearby Tibetan and Nepalese communities.

Though desserts aren’t listed, Drakpa offers slices of cake to the sugar-high-curious. With a smile, he tells of plans to add ice cream when the weather gets warm. He also hopes to acquire a liquor license. May he follow through on the former and accomplish the latter — and thus achieve culinary transcendence.