One day you'll scale (or at least see) Mount Everest. Until that happens, these Nepalese and Tibetan shops and restaurants will have to suffice. Popupla editor Daniel Schwartz takes us on a Himalayan expedition of a more mouthwatering kind.
NEW YORK CITY – You don’t need to travel halfway around the world to get a taste of the Himalayas. Just head to Queens, home to one of the largest populations of Himalayans in the United States. My hometown of Jackson Heights, which has been welcoming South Asians (among many others) for more than half a century, is the epicenter of the action. Some even call it Himalayan Heights due to its high concentration of Nepalese and Tibetan immigrants and the mouthwatering cuisine, myriad traditions, and famously friendly disposition they brought with them. Similar pockets also exist in Elmhurst, Woodside, Sunnyside, Ridgewood, and Ditmas Park in Brooklyn.
And while you won’t find any breathtaking mountain peaks in these parts of New York (just towering train tracks), you will find the largest community of Sherpa outside Nepal and India, beautifully adorned Buddhist and Hindu temples, and a vibrant network of food trucks, restaurants, and tucked-away shops that do their best to preserve traditions of the homeland. My suggestion: Follow the proverbial prayer flags to these Himalayan establishments and strike up conversation with the locals. (As if they never left home, Nepalese and Tibetans often refer to non-South Asians as foreigners, even in the U.S.). They’ll have a story to tell, and, often, another place to add to your list.
For Irresistible Momos
74-06 37th Rd., Jackson Heights; +1-929-522-0625
This modest canteen, which most outside of the Himalayan community walk past without noticing, holds many secrets. In the corner of a tight kitchen, rings of crushed rice, sugar, and ghee (clarified butter) are deep fried into sel roti, a subtly sweet bread that looks like a donut and churro had a baby, then rushed downstairs, still pipping hot, to a dining room where locals break bread with a friendly “namaste.” Next comes the thali, its meat, curry, dhal, and vegetables also arranged like a ring around rice or dhedo, a bread-like porridge made from buckwheat and millet flours. It’s a popular choice for the hungry and is routinely refilled by the downstairs host, who tops up portions of curry and rice when they start to dwindle. But the real stars here are the jhol momos, the most common type of dumplings on the streets of Kathmandu, which won top prize at 2017. Rather than fried or steamed, they come bathing in a luscious, oily, cold broth of broken-down tomatoes, sesame seeds, and chicken stock that’s so good you can (and should) slurp it solo.
More Momos: Phayul Restaurant (37-65 74th St., fl. 2, Jackson Heights; +1-718-424-1869), located above a nail studio next door to Nepali Bhanccha Ghar, and Amdo Kitchen (37-59 74th St., Jackson Heights; +1-347-612-8208), a food truck typically parked just across the street, both do incredible Tibetan momos and command loyal followings.
For Delicious Nepalese Staples
64-23 Broadway, Woodside; +1-347-642-3445
A block away from the 65th Street train station on the border where the BQE separates Woodside and Jackson Heights sits this humble Nepalese restaurant specializing in Newari cuisine, which comes from the indigenous historical inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley. The dim, diner-esque establishment once served Italian food in addition to solid Nepalese staples, which isn’t that surprising considering the chef used to run an Italian-Nepalese restaurant back in Kathmandu, where the combination is not uncommon. Nowadays, there’s no pasta on the menu, just traditional dishes like chili momo — stuffed with juicy meat, fried, then covered in a bell pepper sauce equally sweet as it is spicy — and Newari thali, a ring of choila (spiced grilled meat), cumin chickpeas, roasted soybeans, black-eyed peas, cauliflower, pickled radishes, mustard greens, and potatoes arranged around a mound of rice, served with curry, bamboo soup, and a sweet, honey-soaked pastry on the side. Opt for beaten rice, where the grains are flattened and dried for an added crunch factor. Also on the menu: An excellent version of Wai Wai sadeko, a spicy chaat made with red onion, cilantro, lemon, green chile, and crushed up instant noodles from the Nepalese brand Wai Wai.
Keep Eating: Tawa Food (37-38 72nd St., Jackson Heights; +1-718-457-7766), a literal hole-in-the-wall establishment that shares space with a bakery, churns out excellent thali (try the one with sukuti, a spiced meat dried over fire, charcoals, or out in the sun), momos, and roti and paratha (both scrumptious Indian flatbreads).
For a Break from Tradition
758 Seneca Ave., Ridgewood; 718-386-3416
Representing the Nepalese population in Ridgewood is this hip (for a Nepalese restaurant) joint from Bikash Kharel, whose parents own and operate the orthodox and very straightforward Nepalese Indian Restaurant a few blocks away. Here, the vibe is fun and funky — the awning outside is covered in thatch, the front doorknobs are elephants, the kitchen is encased in what looks like a mountain house, the bar stocks craft beer, and there’s a backyard. The thing to get is Nepalese breakfast — a pancake made out of savory buckwheat, sweet millet, or lentils served with cumin home fries, tomato chutney, and a light potato curry on the side. You can put an egg on it, or you can go full-on bodega and get it with bacon, egg, and cheese, an homage to Kharel’s favorite breakfast as a teenager growing up in New York. Also on the menu are staples and specials from Chitwan, where Kharel is from, and the cuisine of the Newars, where chef Shanti Maskey traces her heritage (think twice-charred chicken thigh served with tomato and mint chutneys in a roti that sort of resembles a taco). Masala wings are on offer, because why not, as are the ubiquitous momo, these ones served in a cold, intoxicating, tomato-based broth.
For Yak and Live Music
72-20 Roosevelt Ave., Jackson Heights; +1-718-779-1119
Adventurous eaters with a craving for yak can find it in all its forms — yak cheese, yak blood sausage, yak momos — under the rumble of the 7 train at this neighborhood stalwart, which has been serving the community longer than just about anyone else in the area. The menu here is expansive and features dishes from Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan, and India, including medicinal yarsagumba (caterpillar fungus) tea and the Bhutanese national dish ema datsi, a heap of chiles, onions, and cheese. The large, lively dining room and occasional performances by Himalayan musicians make this place a popular choice for a night out.
For Nepalese Barbecue
43-16 Queens Blvd., Sunnyside; +1-316-258-9875
Meat is the focus at the first and only outpost of this chain of barbecue restaurants with thirteen locations in Nepal, which started, charmingly enough, as a meat shack near the Kathmandu airport almost 40 years ago. The Sunnyside location, overlooking the tracks on Queens Boulevard, is nowhere near that austere, with an updated traditional look (there’s a mock native kitchen up front and a stocked bar in the back), good service, and a pleasant evening atmosphere that makes it good for date night. Chunks of grilled bandel (wild boar) and hyakula (mutton) — and fried goat head for the adventurous — stand out from a menu of Nepalese and Indian dishes. Jhol momos don’t disappoint either, and rasgoola, a sweet curd dessert, makes a good end to the meal.
For Himalayan Groceries
7230 Broadway, Jackson Heights; +1-718-505-9201
This jam-packed basement shop is the place to stock up on all things Nepali — prayer flags, incense, CDs, masks, textiles, jewelry, artisan crafts, and a slew of grocery products, including momos, pickles, instant butter tea, and dried yak cheese, or churpi. If filling up the shopping cart is more the move, has an entire section dedicated to Nepalese ingredients.
For a Meditation
41-01 75th St., Elmhurst; +1-718-779-7300
An exquisitely crafted, hand-painted front gate stands guard over a Buddhist temple housed in a brick building that used to be a Lutheran church. (That’s Queens in a nutshell.) Inside, members of the Sherpa community (and any who would join them) gather for meditations and classes in language, religion, and culture.
For the Awesome Location
Lhasa Fast Food
37-50 74th St., Jackson Heights; +1-646-256-3805
Most people walk past this tiny cash-only Tibetan restaurant without ever even knowing it — it’s located down a hallway, next to a barbershop and a luggage store, directly behind a cell phone store among the jewelers of Little India. Inside is a large portrait of the Dalai Lama, mounted on what looks like the roof of a traditional Tibetan house, presiding over a small kitchen, a handful of tables, and a crowd of friendly Tibetans. (The owner hails from the Tibetan region of Amdo, now Qinghai Province, China, where the Dalai Lama was born.) A tiny TV plays music videos from the motherland, the perfect soundtrack for a feast of bulbous, hand-pressed momos doused in house made Tibetan hot sauce, thenthuk (a herbaceous, hand-pulled noodle soup), tingmo (flavorless yet equalizing steamed bread), and salty butter tea, best had on a cold winter day when the journey to this small counter joint really feels like finding light at the end of a tunnel.
Another Good Trek: Café Tibet (510 Cortelyou Rd., Ditmas Park; +1-718-941-2725), located next to a Tibetan-owned bodega overlooking the Cortelyou Road subway station platform, is the divey, momo-slinging hole-in-the-wall of your dreams. It’s cash-only and BYOB, but you can access the bodega for beer without leaving the restaurant.
For a Nice Meal Out
51-18 Skillman Ave., Woodside; +1-718-899-8629
For chef Dawa Bhuti and her father Ngodup Gyaltsen, vastly different experiences form the backbone of the menu at their family-owned, plant-filled restaurant, which serves both American and Himalayan cuisine. Chef Bhuti’s track record at Mercer Kitchen, Rouge Tomate, and Reynard explains delightfully balanced dishes like baked eggs with seasonal vegetables; fresh ricotta with pear jam and kale; and pan-seared duck with pearl grain and a chili-chestnut emulsion. Her father’s contribution to the menu tells the story of the homeland he was forced to leave behind. Gyuma, blood sausage stuffed with beef tripe and heart and studded with emma (the Tibetan version of Sichuan peppercorn); shabaley, flakey pastries filled with ground beef and served with sepen (Tibetan hot sauce); and the requisite bouquet of momos, doughier here than elsewhere in town, transport diners to Dzonga, Tibet, where Gyaltsen used to cook for workers at the local farmers markets. It goes without saying, but his is the more exciting side of the menu.