“The momo is the greatest culinary ambassador I have been exposed to, and it is amazing how contagious it is,” says Jeff Orlick. “Whenever I mention the word ‘momo’ to people, they want it. They don’t know what it is, but they want it.”
Orlick is a Jackson Heights resident devoted to supporting the community, which he does by facilitating connection through a number of food-focused events and programs. “Food,” he says, “is my preferred medium for communication and understanding.” The momo, a Tibetan dumpling, was the medium at Saturday’s Fourth Annual Momo Crawl, which Orlick organized. The crawl drew a crowd of hundreds, who wended their way through Jackson Heights’s streets, hitting up 23 momo vendors to identify the best dumpling and award it the coveted Golden Momo.
The crawl began when Orlick and his friends challenged each other to eat at all the momo vendors in the neighborhood—then 14. As Jackson Heights’ population of Himalayan immigrants grew, so did the number of restaurants, trucks, and stands hawking momos—not to mention interest in the region’s cuisine.
Participants on Saturday purchased a momo crawl map with one bill of any denomination, and then sampled momos at $1 a pop. A hundred percent of the area’s vendors were on board. Orlick says many of them were ready to go because of previous years, but others took a little convincing. “I can’t just call them because I don’t speak Tibetan or Nepali languages, so I go in person and try to convey it as best I can,” Orlick says. “For holdouts, I have some muscle in the form of Ms. Tshering Gurung from Nepal, who is great at convincing businesses that this is something they absolutely must do.”
The proceeds go entirely to the restaurants. Orlick fielded some complaints that a dollar a momo was too steep, but as he explains, “I never intended this to be an event where people would get a deal for momos. I intend this to be an awesome, affordable experience – and it is. Too many people see foreign food and think it should be cheap.”
And in fact, it was easy to fill up for less than $10, making for a cheap meal after all. Momos are generally a bit larger than bite-size, with thick and somewhat doughy wrappers. They come steamed or fried, with fillings of beef, pork, chicken, vegetables, or most traditionally, yak, along with hot sauces of varying intensity. At their best, they’re juicy flavor-bombs, cousins to soup dumplings.
Even within the small grid of downtown Jackson Heights, there was plenty of variety in the style of momos served. Phayul (37-65 74th Street,Queens; 718- 424-1869), a second-story Tibetan restaurant, had the juiciest momos; the ones at Namaste Chatauri (7415 Roosevelt Avenue, Queens; 718-424-4994), a spacious Indo-Tibetan spot, had the richest, meatiest flavor.
The Nepali-Tibetan Mustang Thakali Kitchen (74-14 37th Avenue, Queens; 718-898-5088) offered sesame and tomato-based condiments, going beyond the typical hot sauce. And Lhasa Fast Food (37-50 74th Street, Queens; 718-205-3188), a tiny shop hidden behind a cell phone store (and last year’s winner) served momos with the most delicate wrappers and fresh-tasting veggies. But the champ was AMDO Kitchen (37-59 74th Street, New York, 11372), a beloved food truck serving beautifully pleated beef and chicken momos.
Every restaurant was also serving its regular Saturday customers, delivering to them steaming bowls of noodles or a range of thalis. Orlick hopes the event will encourage return visits, bringing in new diners who might otherwise overlook these spots. “Being Jewish and living in Jackson Heights, I have a pull to help refugees of Tibet to make their dreams come true in NYC as soon as possible,” he says. “My people were refugees and I am too fortunate not to devote myself to helping new immigrants try to make it here too.”