Eating All The Momos in Jackson Heights
Himalayan restaurants have been popping up all over Jackson Heights over the past few few years, injecting their flavor into the neighborhood's diverse landscape by way of hearty Tibetan soups and spice-heavy Nepali street food. As many as 9 different restaurants have joined the ranks of pioneers like Himalayan Yak and Tibetan Mobile, creating a tidal movement in the 'hood that has Queens food honcho Joe DiStefano and others dubbing it "Himalayan Heights."
Spurred on by his love of Nepalese food, neighborhood ambassador Jeff Orlick—whose Roosevelt Avenue centric events we've covered in the past—organized a Thursday night Himalayan-themed crawl last week for June In Jackson Heights. Arming participants with a game board-esque map, Orlick tasked 3 groups of 8 adventurers with a mission fit for K2: brave the 90 degree heat and heavy humidity to eat at every one of the neighborhood's 15 momo parlors.* (It was a great enough challenge that Orlick scoffed mid-tour, "I don't know what I was thinking. This was my stupidest idea ever.")
*Zomsa appeared to have shuttered the day of our tour.
Native to Tibet and found in the neighboring mountain countries and states of India, momos are a type of dumpling that often, but not always, have a bao zi-like purse shape and sport a thicker dough. Typically fried or steamed, they're served with dipping sauces that display more of a South-than-East Asian influence. Common flavors in Queens include roasted chilies and Sichuan peppercorn as well as tomato and cilantro. In Tibet, the dumplings are more bland—usually just cooked with oil and salt—whereas the Nepalese version comes with more Indian spices. (According to one Woodside Café worker, "they aren't Nepali momos without garam masala.") Some parlors make their dough by hand, but many use the pre-made wrappers found in Chinese supermarkets. A good indication of homemade dough is a bao zi-like shape, though not always. Fillings run the gamut from vegetables and cheese to more exotic proteins like water buffalo, a popular filling among the Newari of Nepal, and yak. In Queens, beef, chicken, pork, and vegetable are all common fillings; cheese, unfortunately, is not.
Asked to share his inspiration, Orlick stressed a single tenet: "I just try to have fun." Speaking with Grub Street's Jenny Miller, he admitted that the event was probably a little chaotic—but that's how he likes it. Preserving a sense of discovery, rather then simply hand feeding participants a packaged experience, is fundamental to his tours. Perhaps more than anything else, this is what most distinguishes his events from those common in the food world.
In a post-crawl conversation, Orlick explained his motivations more thoroughly. "June in Jackson Heights came along and asked me to do something. I have a bunch of tours and events that I have always wanted to do and I've been lucky to do a bunch of them in the past month ... For this one, I just started counting the number of Himalayan restaurants [in the area], and thought it was incredible." As in the past, he stressed the importance of supporting local, immigrant business: "... the Nepalese people have always been extremely nice to me, and I can see how creative and open they are. They are such great people and I want to encourage more [of them] to come to Queens by others' success. They put so much hope into coming here. With all my events, I want to get people IN the actual business. I want people to get comfortable walking in the store—it's such a big step."
That creativity was evident in the variety of institutions we visited, which included sleek family affairs, take-out shacks (such as Serious Eats favorite Tawa Foods), and cozy, cool cafes like Bhim's, where diners can snack on buffalo.
Which were our favorites? Preferences were pretty unanimous, entirely unscientific, and generally enthusiastic. Among our group: Tibetan Mobile (perhaps the best of the Tibetan bunch), Woodside Cafe, Tawa Foods (word of advice: skip the chicken and go green; those vegetables pack serious flavor), Lali Guras, Norling Cafe, and the Patola Cart stood out above the rest. But the best? Well, that's up to you.
Check out the slideshow for a look at every one of the Himalayan Heights' momos, with notes on style and quality.
About the author: Chris Crowley is a former Serious Eats intern and the author of the Bronx Eats column. You can follow him on twitter here, or pay a visit to his new food blog, Sound Bites, over on Wordpress.