Joe DiStefano's Himalayan Heights: Touring Tibetan and Nepali Food in Queens
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"When people ask me where to get Indian food in Jackson Heights, I say they should go to the Himalayan places instead. That's what's exciting here now."
Joe DiStefano, the guy who's forgotten more about the food in my home borough of Queens than I've ever tasted, has told me this before. Since we've been celebrating Himalayan food all week, I decided it was finally time to make him show me first hand just what he meant. So Robyn and I took off to meet him for a whirlwind tour of the neighborhood we thought we knew, which over the past ten years has become such a hub of Himalayan food and culture that he's taken to calling it Himalayan Heights.
New York's Himalayan food encompasses both Tibetan and Nepali cuisines, many times in the same restaurant. There are, of course, momos, steamed Tibetan dumplings filled with meat or vegetables. But you'll also find spicy (and not spicy) curries, fluffy steamed breads, fried snacks, pungent pickles, giant rice plates, smoky stir fries, creamy butter tea, and yes, momos again, because they're really good—all in about a four-block radius. There are Chinese influences, Indian flavors, and plenty of only-in-the-Himalayas ingredients like yak butter and striking orange chili sauces. It's some good—and surprisingly accessible—eating.
All the stops:
- Tashi Delek Momo Palace (inside Merit Kabab)
- Bombay Chat
- Hamro Bhim's Cafe
- Tawa Food
- Nepal House
- Raja Sweets & Fast Food (honorary not-Himalayan stop)
Note: You can find several of these restaurants in the Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art's guide to Himalayan food and culture, Himalayan NYC. To win your own printed copy, which will get you discounts off your meals, enter here.
We began our tour at Merit Kabab, a small Indian food court that houses a Himalayan steam table in the back. "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." By which he means Tashi Delek Momo Palace, where you can find Tibetan and Nepali specialties like gyuma (blood sausage) and some impressive braised tongue.
From there we checked out Bombay Chat, another case study in Queens retail stacking three or four types of business into the same space. There's the guy with a window stall at the front selling Indian betel leaf digestives—and phone cards. Right inside, an Indian chaat cart (with some awesome pani puri), and in the back, another steam table, this time strictly Nepali, with a selection of curries and hand pies accompanied by a curiously unique sweet and spicy chili sauce. Overlooking it all is a portrait of the Dalai Lama, whose smiling face we see in almost every Himalayan space we enter.
Joe shepherded us along for a full Nepali thali ("can you add some of that heart to the plate, too?") to a shoebox of a restaurant where the adjoining table is, most of the time, spillover for momo production, and into a second floor cafe up a tiny staircase, so hidden away you'd miss it if you blinked. Himalayan Heights is expansive but geographically tiny: it's squashed into the ultra-developed cultural mash-up anchored by the 74th Street subway, where every open nook is an opportunity to sell food, trinkets, and daily necessities.
That omnidirectional, Lincoln-log-stacked urbanism is what keeps bringing me back to the neighborhood. I never knew how well tandoori chicken legs and Tibetan tingmo worked together until I ate them at the same restaurant, and there's only a handful of other places in the city where you can jump from momos and achar to tacos just by turning the corner.
The Tibetan and Nepali community clusters around their restaurants and cafes, which become de facto cultural centers, but they're not closed off to anyone. We found quite the opposite: cultural boundaries feel like an antiquated notion in this part of town, and when the food is this good, it's not hard to see why. Step on in and you'll be greeted with a smile, and in a couple minutes, a heaping plate of food. So—what's stopping you?
Want your own tour from Joe? Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.