Tibetan and Nepalese restaurants have come to dominate the dining scene in bustling Jackson Heights, where there are now 12 or so, plus one amazing momo cart at the corner of 37th Road and Broadway. (OK, some lie across Roosevelt Avenue, technically in Elmhurst). But now the Himalayan establishments — mostly small cafes — have begun appearing in bucolic Sunnyside two miles to the southwest. And while the original Jackson Heights places served customers for whom the area was mainly a shopping destination, these new cafes are in the middle of an immigrant residential neighborhood that is gradually becoming a Tibetan Little Lhasa.
One of the newest goes by the tongue-twisting name of Gakyizompe. The moniker means "Happy Gathering" in Tibetan, and the brightly lit spot lies up a few steps from the street, making you feel like you're dining on a broad flat cloud. From the end of the room beams a silk-draped Dalai Lama, his visage enlightened by a bulb shaped like a lotus blossom. A flat-screen TV fills the room with religious processions, mountain travelogues, and Indian soaps. The place is larger than you might expect from the street, with three rows of gleaming green tables flanked by rosewood chairs. Early in the evening, a knot of teens hangs in the front of the room, gossiping about their school friends in a lively mixture of Tibetan and English. (Tibeglish?)
The menu offers not only standard Tibetan fare, but Nepalese and Bhutanese dishes — suggesting those nationalities share the neighborhood — and also Indian-Chinese cuisine, popularized in the last few years not only among Indians, but among Himalayans. Unlike such exclusively Tibetan restaurants as Phayul, Gakyizompe neglects more obscure and sharply flavored Tibetan recipes in favor of an almost diner-style uniformity of presentation and taste. No Sichuan peppercorns here, though the food is relentlessly well-prepared and rib-sticking.
Rarest is the Bhutanese stuffSince this piece was published, a new Bhutanese restaurant called Ema Datsi has appeared on Woodside Avenue in Woodside. -- Sietsema, referring to a small mountain kingdom hemmed in by China and India, but only a figurative dumpling's throw away from Nepal and Bangladesh. With an area of nearly 15,000 square miles and population of less than a million, the country is mainly shrub-covered mountains, the largest of which, Gangkhar Puensum, is the highest unclimbed peak in the world. Many Bhutanese are shepherds, and they are represented on the menu by a series of three dishes called aima dhatse ($6), a fascinating stew tinted pink with tomatoes and thickened with white cheese. Onions and colorful bell peppers liven up this moderately spicy dish, though back on home turf, chiles would make it way hotter. The dish offers a choice of chicken, lamb, or pork, all pounded with starch into mutant McNuggets. When ordering, you'll be offered a choice of rice or a steamed bread shaped like a ziggurat called tingmo. Pick the bread.
Aima dhatse is a fascinating stew tinted pink with tomatoes and thickened with white cheese.
Nepalese are apparently very fond of thalis — meals consisting of multiple small dishes presented on a metal tray. The mutton thali ($8) is splendid: a couple of bean stews, heap of perfect rice, mess of mustard greens, sharply flavored carrot pickles, lovely plain yogurt, and gnarly mutton curry. Other curry choices include pork, fish, chicken, and beef, though the fish is often not available. I'm often found sitting on the fence about Indian-Chinese food, but here the canon is simply and delightfully rendered. The vegetable chow mein ($6) proved one of the best things on the menu, ropey wheat noodles sluiced with thick soy sauce and tossed with cabbage, red sweet peppers, and enough chiles to make your mouth burn. The Indian-Chinese classic lollipop wings, in which the flesh is pushed to the top of the bone like a little umbrella, lacks the usual cloying red sauce and is instead breaded and cooked like Southern fried chicken. That's an improvement. Once again utilizing the homemade poultry nuggets, chili chicken, another Indian-Chinese standard, is much duller tasting.
Now for the Tibetan stuff. Gyuma ($6) is a plate of thick and crumbly blood sausage. It's the plainest you've ever tasted, but unspeakably rich, with seemingly no seasoning of any sort. As such, it's emblematic of Tibetan cooking, which has a very narrow repertoire of herbs, spices, and other flavorings.
If the weather is cold, you might want your momo deposited in an orange-colored soup with baby bok choy.
The momo are big and sturdy, with dense wrappers. While steamed is the standard, at Gakyizompe you can also get them fried, which is a great novelty. The vegetarian version is once again the best, bulging with mustard greens and scallions. If the weather is especially cold outside, you might want to have your momo deposited in an orange-colored soup with baby bok choy called ruethang momo.
Other desirable Tibetan novelties include the high-altitude empanadas called shabalay (four for $6). Flat, round, deep fried, and stuffed with ground beef, these tasty but bizarrely plain turnovers are just the thing to stuff in your pockets should you decide to climb Gangkhar Puensum. And I'll be huffing and puffing right behind you!
Cost: Meal for two, including app, soup, and shared thali, plus beverages and tax, but not tip, $22
Sample dishes: Vegetarian chow mein, chicken lollipops, shabalay (ground-beef turnovers), gyuma (blood sausage), chicken thali (Nepalese tray meal), aima dhatse pork (Bhutanese stew), pork with phing (spicy soup with mung bean vermicelli).
What to drink: Though the menu offers bhoejha (butter tea), it hasn't been available on my visits. Instead, step to the cooler and choose your American soft drink, which is what Gakyizompe's patrons seem to prefer.
Bonus tip: Don't miss the steamed bread called tingmo, which you can substitute for rice in nearly any dish. Gakyizompe is a short walk from the 46th St (Bliss St) stop on the 7 train. If you walk on 47th St, don't hesitate to drop in at the KPTL Bhutanese store