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The Third Wonder of Woodside Avenue

24 May


DSC00548.JPGLittle did we know when we first visited Woodside Avenue in the fall of 2015 and the Filipino karaoke joint, Papa’s Kitchen (Papa’s Karaoke in the Kitchen Blues) that we would return again to this now fabled food boulevard two more times within the same year. We had no idea that there were three food wonders—all within a two and a half block radius—on Woodside Avenue in our food group’ mecca: Queens. I should have picked up on the hint in Zio’s email after I announced Renacer Bolivian (A Beef Rebirth at a Bolivian Restaurant in Queens) as our last destination: “That was gonna be my pick,” he wrote. “I saw it just before we were accosted by the karaoke queen. I guess I’ll go with the Bhutanese place.”

“Bhutanese?” I wasn’t paying attention until we filed out of Renacer and he pointed to the restaurant on the corner. “That place,” he said.

And a month later we were seated in Bhutanese Ema Datsi,  the restaurant on the corner a few doors down from Renacer Bolivian and across the street from Papa’s Kitchen. The restaurant was deserted and the limited decor featured panoramic posters of villages tucked into Himalayan mountain tops.  The menu was separated into three cuisines: Tibetan, Bhutanese, and Indian. Why go to a Bhutanese restaurant and order Indian food? None of us did. In fact, only Mike from Yonkers veered from the intriguing Bhutanese column on the menu when he ordered the Tibetan beef with oyster mushrooms.

DSC00551 (2)

A Bhutanese retreat

We were without Eugene this evening meaning, because of his bizarre aversion to fungi, we were without guilt  in ordering dishes with a plethora of mushrooms.   Not that it would have stopped Mike from Yonkers—or Gerry for that matter—from indulging in the options on the Bhutanese menu. Gerry’s mushroom selection was the specialty of the restaurant, the ema datsi with mushrooms; a stew of vegetables along with the mushrooms and very hot green chilies combined in a mild gooey cheese sauce that was nothing like what you would get on a Philly cheese steak sandwich.


“Dry” pepper chicken

Before ordering our entrees, however, we got started with two appetizers: the “pepper chicken dry,” a fiery plate of stir fried boneless chicken and peppers, and the sooji deep fried pomfret (fish).

“What’s a pomfret?” Zio inquired of our gracious, yet soft spoken to the extreme, waiter. Could it be that he was fresh off a vow of silence stint at a Buddhist monk training camp? No one knew for sure, but the words he mouthed after Zio’s question were inaudible to all of our aged ears. When the pomfret arrived looking like slightly upscale fish sticks we quickly sampled. One taste and all of us agreed that the pomfret  tasted suspiciously like tilapia—as if tilapia has any taste at all. Thankfully the fish was served with a house made chili sauce which gave it much needed flavor.


Bhutanese fish sticks


Zio and I choose “dry” items on the menu. He went with the dry pork and I tried the dried beef curry “moapa” style. Zio’s appeared first; slices of dried fatty pork belly in a stew of thinly sliced potatoes. “No these aren’t potatoes,” Zio proclaimed after taking a bite. I sampled one. “It’s a radish, ” I told him


Dried pork

The potato like chunks in my dried beef stew were indeed potatoes but the stew was devoid of the familiar flavor of curry. Not that it mattered; the dish was hearty and fiery enough to sustain a man on a frigid night in the Himalayas. I wondered why the waiter deposited toothpicks on our table along with our platters until I began picking pieces of the dried beef out of my teeth.


Dry beef stew “moapa” style

Lastly, small bowls of from what I thought the waiter whispered was “seaweed soup” were given to all of us. I took a sip. I had heard correctly. Zio, however, heard nothing.

“I’m not sure if I’m supposed to clean my hands with what is in this bowl or eat it?”

Where do they get seaweed in Bhutan, I wondered aloud. No one answered. No one cared. Sometimes we need to put our heads down and just eat.

After cleaning our platters, our check arrived. We thought we might be helpless without Eugene present to tally up the damage. But there was no damage. We were well below our $20 per person allotment. And for all the very satisfying food we ate, that was a wonder in itself.

Bhutanese Ema Datsi

67-21 Woodside Ave



Tibetan Obsession

30 Jul

Punda Tibetan

“Do you have a special affinity for the people of Tibet?” I asked Eugene when I met him on 47th Avenue in Sunnyside, Queens a few minutes before we were scheduled to dine at a place chosen by Eugene called Punda Tibetan?
“No. Why?” Eugene asked, perplexed by my question.

“Then it’s the food you like? Something about the momos?” I asked, referring to the Tibetan dumplings we’ve had before courtesy of Eugene. (See Momo Moments in the East Village)

“What?” Now he was really confused.

“Well, this is the third Tibetan place you’ve chosen since we’ve been picking,” I said. Along with Himalayan Café, Eugene also brought us, many years ago to Himalayan Yak ( See Yak Under the Tracks).

“It is?” He truly had no idea.

“And it’s not like Tibetan food is like…say…Chinese or Mexican.”

He shrugged. “I wanted a Greek place, but it was too expensive,” he replied. “So I found this one.” He was oblivious that, of all cuisines, he had latched onto the food of Tibet.

There were only four of us dining on Tibetan on this sultry summer evening. Rick was having chronic babysitting issues back at his Jersey money pit while Gerry opted to attend a “business” meeting at Yankee Stadium instead of coming to Sunnyside and eating more momos. “Really, Gerry?” Eugene scolded in a brusque group email to him when Gerry informed us of his decision.

Bush and the Dali Lama? Who knew?

Bush and the Dali Lama? Who knew?

The air conditioning was minimal in Punda Tibetan so even before we were brought our appetizers of shabhalap, a Tibetan version of empanadas, filled with meat and spices, and phag, small fluffy pieces of bland barley dough that were to be dipped into a savory meat gravy, we were beginning to sweat.



Adding to the sheen on my forehead were the abundant roasted chilies in the jhasha khatsa, a spicy chicken stew, I ordered. The side of Basmati rice helped douse the flames but an even better fire extinguisher were the two fleshy mounds of tingmo that accompanied Eugene’s dish of phing sa, a beef noodle stew.


Jhasha khatsa

“Oh we have play dough,” Zio said cheerily upon the arrival of the tingmo.

“Play dough or maybe the beginnings of the Pillsbury dough boy,” I said.

“What do you do with it?” Eugene asked our bewildered reticent waitress.

Using her hands to communicate, she showed us that the tingmo was to be torn with your hands and used to dip into the stews.

Tibetan Play Dough

Tibetan Play Dough

Mike from Yonkers even dipped some of the dough into his already starchy stew of cottage cheese or, as they say in the southern regions of Tibet: “paneer.” But after tasting the paneer at Punda Tibetan, the cheese had more of the consistency of tofu.

“At least there’s no tilapia here,” Zio commented as he slurped down his spicy Shabtak, a beef stew better suited for the harshness of the Himalayas than a sultry summer evening in Queens.



Once finished and after wiping the sweat from our collective brows, Zio limped wide-legged out the door of the restaurant into the equally steamy street. “I think my underpants are stuck to my ass,” he announced as if we needed such information.

“I already know the place I’m picking next,” Eugene declared as we headed down the street.

“Will it feature tingmos or momos?” I inquired, but Eugene didn’t bother to answer.

Punda Tibetan

39-35 47th Avenue

Sunnyside, Queens

Momo Moments in the East Village

31 Jul

Cafe Himalaya

“What made you choose this place?” I asked Eugene as our group convened at the Cafe Himalaya in the East Village.

“We’ve never had Himalayan food before,” was his response.

“Himalayan food?”


“You mean, Tibetan and Nepali food,” I said, pointing to what was written under the restaurant’s awning and on the menu.

“No Himalayan,” Eugene corrected me.

“But isn’t Himalayan food from Tibet and Nepal?” I queried.

“It is?”

“And didn’t you, several years ago, choose a place called Himalayan Yak?”

Eugene was perplexed. “I did?”

“Yes you did,” I said. “You don’t remember?”

He was lost for a moment and then waved his hand derisively. “How do you expect me to remember these things,” he snapped before quickly proceeding to bury his face in his menu.

This was our second attempt to get to the Cafe Himalaya. Our first, the previous week, was cancelled due to flooding on the Westchester roads. Everyone but Rick was available the following week so rescheduling was easy.

Seating was tight at the Cafe Himalaya. Zio was wedged so tightly between Mike from Yonkers and Eugene it was as if he was encased in a swarthy sausage casing. It didn’t help that the humidity was high and the lone air conditioner was struggling above the constantly opened front door.

Not much help there.

Not much help there.

Business was brisk, both outgoing and at the tables. Our harried waitress didn’t waste any time arriving at our table with pencil and pad in hand ready to take our order. Though we did visit a “Himalayan” place several years ago, Himalayan Yak (Yak Under the Tracks) did not have momos (dumplings) on the menu. Cafe Himalaya did, however, and we ordered two, one, pan-fried and stuffed with potato and the other, steamed and filled with ground chicken and herbs.

The café’s most popular dishes were written on the blackboard above the entrance to the kitchen and most of us ordered from there including myself when I ordered the tsel dofu, or vegetables and tofu in a spicy sauce.

Where the rest of us pointed to what we wanted on the menu or recited the corresponding number, Mike from Yonkers, in his best Tibetan, barked “Shapta,” to the waitress as she came to him for his order. But either she didn’t hear or she just wasn’t used to someone actually reciting the food they wanted to order.

“Shapta,” he repeated in a louder voice and this time she understood.

The momos came out first; the “tsel” or vegetarian, in my opinion, the better of the two. The chicken momo was an acquired taste and one I could not find it in myself to acquire. Despite our typically overwhelming hunger, there were momos left on our plates—a sign that at Himalaya Café the momos were mediocre.

Steamed chicken momos

Steamed chicken momos

When our entrees began to arrive the waitress called out “shapta.” I knew I didn’t order the shapta but no one was responding. She said it again and Mike from Yonkers waved his hand. “Shapta over here,” he said and she placed the platter of spicy, thinly sliced beef in front of him.

While Mike from Yonkers was examining his shapta, Eugene was quickly devouring the chicken curry, reminiscent, of Indian chicken curry but with the addition of yogurt giving the sauce a pinkish hue.

“How’s the Himalayan chicken curry,” I asked Eugene, not daring to sample any myself lest I risk getting speared by his rapidly plunging fork.

“It’s good,” he mumbled half-heartedly and then went back to silently devouring his food.

Shapta anyone?

Shapta anyone?

I wasn’t sure what it was Gerry ordered but noticed the pieces of white meat chicken and an abundance of broccoli.

“Chicken and broccoli?” I inquired

“Something like that,” Gerry said after a taste.

Zio’s  “chili chicken” pieces of thin, fried boneless chicken and vegetables, was, from my sampling, very much like Mike from Yonkers’ shapta; the same vegetable and sauce. Though advertised as spicy both dishes benefited by the additional zest provided by the restaurant’s hot sauce.

Spicy Dofu

Spicy Dofu

Crowds were beginning to mingle outside the tiny restaurant. Eyes were on our coveted table. I kept pace with the others as we made quick work of our meals.  Mike from Yonkers, however, crowds be damned, deliberately picked at his shapta, spooning small bits onto a few kernels of Basmati rice before shoveling it into his mouth. It was getting hotter inside the restaurant. Customers waiting for tables were hovering over ours.

“It’s time, Mike,” Eugene bellowed from Zio’s opposite side.

“All right, I’m done,” Mike from Yonkers announced, putting down his fork.

Our bill was quickly brought to us with the final result well under our $20 per person budget.

The view from our table.

The view from our table.

We sprawled out onto Houston Street and as we did, a group of eager Tibetan and/or Nepali food aficionados swooped in and took over our table for four where we had fit five. The momos weighed heavily in my belly. Sweat marks had formed under the armpits of Zio’s stylish extra extra large t-shirt. “Good job, Eugene,” he said. “But I have a question.”

“What’s that?”

“Do you have to wait for a table in Nepal?”

Eugene had no answer of course, but we could all clearly agree that our group of intrepid, yet slovenly diners, during our now 12 year run,  had yet to wait for a table anywhere in our cheap eats hot zone that encompassed, among other places, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, Yonkers, and yes, even the rarefied streets of the East Village.

Cafe Himalaya

78 E. 1st St.

East Village

Yak Under the Tracks

15 Mar

After traveling to Queens numerous times in the almost four years we had been doing this, in 2005, we coined the area under the number 7 train tracks around Roosevelt Avenue and in the environs of Woodside, East Elmhurst and Jackson Heights as the “epicenter” of our Chow City food universe. And it pretty much remains so six years later.

Himalayan Yak
72-20 Roosevelt Avenue
Jackson Heights, Queens

Eugene had his sights set on a Tibetan restaurant for a long time. We really don’t know why the cuisine of Tibet intrigued him. He didn’t know much about the region. He didn’t know it had many high mountains. He didn’t know it had monks. But something was telling him—or so he casually said as if he were referring to Chinese food, “that it was time we ate Tibetan.”



So Himalayan Yak was found—in the epicenter of our culinary universe, just under the number 7 train on Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights, Queens. Though the title implied yak might be on the menu, there were no yak offerings to be found there. That was fine with Zio who grumbled upon learning where we were to eat that he was, quite frankly, getting sick of yak. “No matter how you prepare it, it still tastes like yak, smells like yak, and looks like yak.”



Though there was no yak on the menu, there was, however the promise of goat brain and ox tongue. Zio brightened at that prospect but was disappointed when our genial Tibetan waiter quickly informed us with a straight face that they were out of brains and tongue. We would have to settle for more pedestrian fare such as shabaleb, a doughy patty stuffed with a tough slab of ground beef that was pink, almost tartare-like. Or the la phing, a cold spicy bean jelly that was tossed with garlic, vinegar and soy sauce that our newest member, Mike from Yonkers took one bite of and, to the dismay of the rest of us, immediately spit out into his napkin and excused himself to run to the bathroom. The la phing and its slime-like consistency certainly had to be an acquired tasted among the Tibetans, but regardless, we expected more temerity from the Tae Kwon Do-trained Mike from Yonkers.  The tsel phing, on the other hand, bean thread in a broth with vegetables and two tingmos (Tibetan steamed rolls) was the perfect comforting antidote to the admittedly revolting la phing.



One of Yak’s special entrees was the gyuma, ten very dark sausages filled with beef that were so good would they would undoubtedly tempt even a vegan monk. What we sampled from the Nepalese kitchen side of the menu was reminiscent to Indian food. The haku chhwela, roasted pieces of lamb were tender and fragrant with Indian spices, while the achar was similar to aloo gobi, pieces of potato and cauliflower in a thick curry. Both were devoured almost instantaneously by our gluttonous group.

Though they do not need worldly pleasures to find fulfillment, Tibetan monks, I had heard, make an exception when it comes to sweets. You wouldn’t know it from what was offered at the Yak. The dey-see, steamed rice with yogurt, raisins and butter had only a hint of sugar and would have made a better breakfast choice than one to follow the likes of ten beef-filled sausages, while the bhatsa markhu, a hand made pasta that reminded Rick of cavetelli with barley, sugar, butter and grated cheese and according to Gerry tasted somewhat like the Jewish dish, kugel, remained practically untouched, a rarity in our insatiable circle.

Our feast was accompanied by a pot of buttered and salted Tibetan tea. The creamy, salty tea at first was a shock, but after a few sips grew on all of us. It would have been the perfect beverage for a wind-chilled night in a tent in the mountains. Not so perfect, however, for a muggy September evening with the scent of gasoline from the next door gas station.



“Good news for all meat lovers,” proclaims a streaming headline on the Himalayan Yak website: “We now have Yak meat on our menu.” This might be good news for meat lovers, but maybe not so for yaks. I recently returned to Himalayan Yak for the first time since our 2005 visit and could not find any yak on my menu. Besides the supposed addition of yak meat, the restaurant has blossomed—if you can call it that—by adding three flat panel LCD television screens positioned next to bucolic scenes of Tibet and a Buddhist altar and proudly, as all restaurants do, displaying their well earned blue A from the Department of Health in their window…and on their website. There is also live Tibetan, Hindi, and Nepali music in the now sleek dining room. I confess to never having heard Nepali or Tibetan music but wonder if it’s prominent enough to help drown out the consistent rumbling of the number 7 train just outside Himalayan Yak’s door.

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