It took me three tries to sink my first shot at Weekender Billiard in Woodside, but the kitchen’s kagkur, a Bhutanese pumpkin chowder laced with coarsely chopped fresh chiles, hustled my taste buds immediately. The recipe calls for beef bones reduced for hours until their melted marrow turns the stock cloudy. Squash gives the stew an orange hue, and a fistful of cilantro adds a refreshing kick. Of all the varied broths gifted to the world by South Asian kitchens, this Himalayan heavy hitter is easily one of the most complex.
It’s a remarkable bowl in a borough known for standout soups, from blood-fortified Thai nam tok to sour Filipino sinigang to aromatic Bangladeshi dal. Order some and the lone waiter — who also pours drinks, manages the snooker and pool tables, and facilitates Western Union money transfers — will ask for your spice preference and whether you’d like to add minced beef (you would).
“Our food takes time, and I didn’t want my customers to get bored,” owner Pema Gyeltshen tells the Voice. “This way, they can play and eat.” Gyeltshen, a Bhutanese expat who grew up in Mongar and now runs a travel company that organizes trips to his homeland, opened this laid-back hideaway off bustling Roosevelt Avenue two years ago, to serve the area’s growing Tibetan and Bhutanese community. More rec center than restaurant, Weekender is outfitted with flat-screen TVs and a picture of the Dalai Lama; its walls are painted green and red. The “dining room” is confined to just four tables in a back corner.
Gyeltshen’s menu tops out at a forgiving $12 and includes plates like spicy chopped pork leg and dried, salted fish stir-fried with peppers and onions. In response to my inquiry about the type of fish being dried and fried, the waiter returned with an empty package that had once held the bony croaker fillets I was dismantling. With so much sourcing subterfuge among today’s farm-to-table set, the earnest transparency was oddly comforting.
Weekends aren’t even the busiest days at Weekender. Groups (of men, mostly) looking to blow off steam after work congregate on weeknights for twilight recreation. They line the bar to drink domestic beer, wine, and the occasional Monster energy drink, seizing moments between sips to chalk their pool cues and take bites of Bumthang puta, bouncy buckwheat noodles dressed with scallions and garlic; the latter, used in place of the usual scrambled-egg topping, adds a pleasing sharpness.
Tibetan momo dumplings are another popular snooker-friendly snack. Coat them in liberal spoonfuls of sepen, a regional Himalayan hot sauce made of dried peppers, coriander, and ginger, then take a bite to release cilantro-spiked beef and a spatter of broth. In the kitchen, a Tibetan cook helps Gyeltshen crimp them just so. He’s also responsible for shaptak, a garlicky Tibetan beef sauté with sweet green peppers that’s sold as a side order for $7.
Weekender cooks five variations of Bhutan’s nationally cherished cheese slurries, of which ema datsi (cheese with chiles) is the most famous. In Gyeltshen’s version, the creamy sauce is velvety, like béchamel, and fresh, fiery peppers are left whole. There are similar stews suffused with mushrooms or potatoes, and one with dried beef or pork that softens in the soup. All are offered as set thali meals that include Bhutanese red rice and bowls of whey soup. The kitchen’s slow-roasted, soy-glazed ribs, meanwhile, are memorably succulent.
Just as memorable is the kitchen’s fondness for mingling garlic, tomatoes, and chile peppers. The pungent combination shows up in diced chicken and honeycomb tripe dishes. The latter, stewed until tender, includes fresh ginger and tongue-numbing Sichuan peppercorns. For those used to offal dishes that accentuate the richness of the offcuts, the punch of piquant flavors is a surprise akin to finally landing a pool shot after several attempts. If you do choose to eat and shoot simultaneously, I’d suggest keeping a mug of butter tea nearby. Your pepper-razed palate will thank you.
41-46 54th Street, Queens
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 3, 2016