This week's noodle reporting took me to Phayul in Jackson Heights, a Tibetan restaurant on the corner of 37th road, on the second floor of a building on top of a beauty parlor and a kebab joint. We went up the stairs, through a cloth curtain, and there it was, a little place packed with diners huddled over servings that looked quite hearty. It was slightly dark with a tavern-like feel. To say that the kitchen was an open kitchen would be a misnomer, because the kitchen was simply located in the restaurant proper. No swinging doors, no back room. It was as though we were all friends, seated around the stove, where one cook manned a wok almost continually ablaze with stir-fries while two others worked beside him. (Three cooks in all, one harried waitress.)
Here is the bottom line for Phayul: When it comes to noodles, go for the broth. Every soup I tried there ranged from very good to extremely delicious.
Very good was the beef broth which came with the Beef Thentuk, hand-torn noodles with broth ($6.99). Usually, I don't care for the soup in doughy noodle dishes, because the broth is so thin and quickly overwhelmed by the hearty noodles. But here, the broth was beefy, with body enough to stand up the noodles which were like thinner, more delicate versions of the knife peel noodles you find in northern Chinese places.
Extremely good was the broth for their Tsak Sha Cu Rul, cheese soup ($3.99). Cheese soup, you say? I immediately thought of the cheesiness of soups for which you add grated Parmesan and Parmesan rinds. Well, this soup was about a whole two or three orders of magnitude cheesier. It came to the table reeking (I do not use that word lightly) of something funky—yak cheese, at it turns out—and the broth itself was almost as thick as porridge. Its placid surface belied its hearty contents: chili peppers, potato, hunks of beef, and cellophane noodles. This cheese soup would be a meal unto itself, I dare say.
Also very good: the broth in which were nestled cellophane noodles, topped with crushed roasted chili peppers and peanuts ($2.99). It was a spicy dark liquid whose primary flavor was vinegar, followed by whole Sichuan peppercorns. The broth was thin but pungent, the sort of thing I wouldn't mind eating on a daily basis. (And usually I don't like to order cellophane noodles at restaurants because they are almost always overcooked. Not this time. They were al dente, slippery.)
Finally, by far my favorite of the evening was the Boe Thuk, beef soup with egg noodles ($5.99). One sip of the broth and I was won over. The soup tasted powerfully of something rich and sweet, like marrow, or even butter. Its sweetness surprised and enthralled me, sip after sip. You would think that the marrow would be too cloying, but no, it was like sipping on a tonic of some kind. And floating on top of the broth were these intriguing herbs that had the taste of oregano or maybe fenugreek. (But which are actually thangyul, a Tibetan moutain herb.)
Was every noodle dish we tried that evening so good? Well, I'm sorry to report that the low point of our meal was the Lhasa fried noodle ($6.99). Their similarity to Chinese takeout lo mein was very striking; I'm afraid I can't say much to recommend them, only they were was good as regular lo mein gets (not too greasy, non-objectionable meat).
Still, four out of five noodle dishes on one night ain't bad at all.* And I am already dreaming of that broth full of sweet, sweet marrow.
* And yes, we ordered only noodles. Now one thing I am always thankful for, this time and year and beyond, is how cheerfully my friends accede to my noodle mania. No one, not once, has ever said to me, "Well, I don't feel like noodles, not tonight." This has recently been the source of some puzzlement for me, because I would not like to think that I am the sort of person who would choose her friends for a certain docility, or else be so bossy as to compel everyone to order noodles every time. Maybe I am just very lucky in my friendships.
74-06 37th Road, Jackson Heights, NY 11372 (map)
About the author: Born in Shanghai and raised in New Mexico, Chichi Wang currently resides in Manhattan, where she divides her time between writing, cooking, and tracking down the best noodles in the city. Visit her blog, Mostly Tripe.