Merit Kabab Dumpling Palace
"I like this place a lot," Joe says. "They're a restaurant within a restaurant. This is kind of the story of Jackson Heights today. You start at the front and there's a lot of fried shit in the window, and then you walk back farther and to find these Indian kebabs. Then there's this."
Tashi Delek Momo Palace
"This" refers to a Tibetan-Nepali steam table in the back of the cafe, which sells everything from momos to tingmo to some impressive braised tongue.
Tongue braised in a spicy chili sauce, springy and meaty, brightened by scallions.
Tashi Delek's tingmo comes fluffy and freshly steamed. It's slightly sweet, and has deep folds lubricated by a tiny bit of oil. It's napkin, sauce-soaker, and braised tongue utensil all in one.
Chili with dried beef
Joe also spotted this pint container of crushed chilies interspersed with bits of dried beef. "There's Sichuan peppercorn in this," he said with a taste. "It's fascinating." We took this bomb of hot stuff with us for the rest of the day, fantasizing a moment when, if asked we wanted hot sauce, we could just say, "no thanks, we brought our own."
The name of this cafe is barely visible under the NetGen awning and PASSPORT PHOTO – INTERNET/FAX sign. And it's a bizarre testament to how businesses in Jackson Heights are often stacked on top of each other. There's a guy in the front window selling Indian digestive betel leaves—and phone cards. Inside lies an Indian chaat cart, and in the back, a Nepali steam table.
These crisp-chewy, slightly spicy fried chickpeas should be on every bar menu.
Shabalay (Meat Pie)
A hand pie filled with ground beef and some scallion, like a larger, heartier momo with a flakier wrapper.
Hamro Bhim's Cafe
"Bhim's is one of the older Himalayan places in Jackson Heights," Joe explained. It's endured a number of changes in ownership, but has remained a fixture of the community.
Hamro Bhim's Cafe
Joe ordered us a full vegetable thali, a platter of rice with curries, yogurt, pickles, and relishes. "Can you add some of the buffalo, tongue, and heart to the plate as well?" So much for a vegetarian dish.
It's designed as a complete meal for one, and individual components are often refilled as you deplete them. Standout components include dense, spicy dry-cooked buffalo, thick tangy yogurt, a lean but satisfying bowl of lentils, and...
A pickle that looks a little Indian and a little Malayasian. The lightly picked cukes and carrots came in a thick sauce of oil and bruised spices. Bittersweet fenugreek seed rang through loud and clear, making this relish taste pungent and sweet all at once. One of our favorite dishes of the day.
We've talked about Tawa before, but that's no reason not to revisit one of the friendliest, homiest, most delicious places for Himalayan food in the neighborhood.
The place is tiny: walk in and you're fast confronted by the food kitchen in the front, and—a few tables away—the paratha and roti baking kitchen in the back. During slow hours, one or two of the tables is given over to momo stuffing as well.
"This place has been here for about 15 years. You see how spacious it is now, but it used to be just two feet of space and a bunch of grannies rolling dumplings. Now it's less of a factory and more of a restaurant."
An assortment of dishes designed to bring good luck. Our plate consisted of (left to right): stewed black eyed peas, white rice, curried chicken, another excellent achar, and crisp fried soy beans in the back. The fried ring on top? Sel roti, a greasy-delicious doughnut made of sweet rice flour (order separately). You have to get a sel roti when you go, especially if they're fresh. The crunchy-chewy sweet doughnuttiness is just marvelous.
The sel roti came with a tomato pickle that, like achar, is based on oil rather than vinegar. But it's great stuff: sweet and a little funky, with a muted heat that heightens the other flavors of your meal without burning your mouth. Compared to at-times bombastically spiced Indian cooking, the Nepali food we had in Jackson Heights tasted much more subtle. Peaceful food, not an adrenaline rush.
Eating in silence
Eating at Tawa makes you feel a little reverent. Our conversation dulled down as we kept shoveling new bites down.
Tawa's vegetable momos are bright, clean, and pack way more flavor into a vegetarian dumpling than you'd think possible. "Everyone's all down on Tawa because they use pre-made wrappers for their momos, but I don't see what the big deal is." He's right: these are pretty close to perfect.
Sensing our bellies starting to really plump, Joe announced, "It's time for a cultural diversion." So around the corner and down some stairs we went to Nepal House, your one-stop-shop for prayer flags, select Himalayan ingredients, and yup, more photos of the Dalai Lama.
Puffed and flaked rice forms the backbone of some crunchy spiced snacks in Himalayan cooking, and here's where you can pick them up in bulk. Think rice krispies, but flatter and more dense.
And, if the spirit moves you, some cubes of rock hard yak cheese. For what? We're not sure, but this stuff makes Parmesan smell like Monterey Jack.
Joe shows off his new hat purchase. Hey, you can't wear a Mets cap all the time.
Blink and you'll miss the entrance to Phayul, one of the neighborhood's most beloved Himalayan restaurants. The entrance, just around the corner from the 74th Street artery, is up a narrow set of stairs—past the Himalayan hair salon.
These gel-like starch noodles (similar to Chinese liang fen) came in a cool, refreshing, and very garlicky hot and sour broth. The noodles themselves have a glassy-creamy texture going on, just substantial enough to keep you craving more.
Tibetan blood sausage, a little crumbly (in a good way) and threaded through with glass noodles. It's a whole new way to look at blood sausage.
"We gotta get some tsampa," Joe explained. "What is it?" "Well it's this kind of tasteless, unseasoned buckwheat paste that you use to eat up the more flavorful stuff."
We'll just say that his description is totally accurate. But it's the perfect utensil for some glistening, funky achar.
Tingmo-Tsampa Sandwich Hack
Joe wraps a wad of tsampa in some of the tingmo we ordered on the side. Sandwich hack brilliance? "Oh god, it's sucking up all the moisture in my mouth!" Guess not. But points for trying something new.
We couldn't leave without sharing a cup of butter tea: salty, eerily creamy, scary savory butter tea.
So there are Himalayan dishes that Westerners are going to love, and others that are harder sells. This may be one of the latter. But it's such an essential part of the Tibetan diet that you'd be crazy not to try it. And when you're herding goats in the low-oxygen mountains, you'll take all the warming, caloric butter tea you can get. Even if it smells like a wet yak.
Raja Sweets & Fast Food
"Okay, this isn't Himalayan at all, but you should eat it anyway." What does Joe mean?
A scoop of kulfi, thick Indian ice cream made thicker with ground almonds, afloat in a cup of milk flavored with rose syrup, full of noodles and jelly-like basil seeds. An all over the map but surprisingly delicious dessert, and, in its own way, the perfect end to our very filling day.
Save Tibet Tat
And if this guy is sitting at the table next to you, it's still part of the Himalayan food tour, right?
See ya, Lamas
And so we say farewell to the Himalayan food of Jackson Heights—and the many Dalai Lama photos we saw along the way. No worries, Lamas, we'll be back soon.