Bhutan is the Switzerland of the Himalayas, a tiny country with a population of less than a million squished between Tibet, China, and India; but also only a hop, skip, and a prop-plane jump from Burma. Sometimes known as the Kingdom in the Clouds, Bhutan’s air is clear and cold, the terrain rugged with few paved roads, with an altitude averaging 8,000 feet. Just within the northern border lies Gangkhar Puensum, the highest unclimbed peak in the world. Want to visit Bhutan, which is rapidly becoming a tourist destination? Maybe you don’t need to, now that we’ve got Bhutanese Ema Datsi in Woodside.
The restaurant stands on a wind-swept plateau that slopes steeply down to the rutted yak path of the BQE as it wends its way through western Queens. Walk in the door to find a makeshift mannequin with a Styrofoam head dressed in native garb. She welcomes you to a dining room outfitted with commodious round tables, suggesting this was once a Chinese restaurant (and a web search of the address confirms it). One wall is decorated with a mural of Tiger’s Nest Monastery — Bhutan’s biggest tourist attraction — which clings dizzyingly to the side of a cliff.
Ema datsi ($7.99) is also the name of Bhutan’s national dish, a slurry of onions and searing green chiles swimming in what might be Cheez Whiz, at least in this rendition — making it startlingly similar to chili con queso. (Back in Bhutan, yak cheese would be more common.) Eat it with the country’s famous red rice ($1.99), nutty tasting and here mixed with basmati, or with tingmo ($1.50), a delightful steamed bread tied in a big knot like a weight lifter’s shoulder. Proving ema datsi’s primacy to Bhutanese cuisine, the restaurant offers several variations in which a single ingredient — potatoes, mushrooms, or green beans — has been added to the recipe. I like the one with potatoes, which feels more like a full meal than the others.
The stews included are good choices if you like chewy food.
Ema datsi illustrates the simplicity of Bhutanese cooking, and the relatively narrow range of ingredients available to a country with a nomadic population and little arable land. Other classic Bhutanese dishes include "fried chicken spicy monpa style" ($9.99). The bird is neither fried nor particularly spicy, but it is tasty and nourishing, consisting of little boneless pieces thinly coated with a sauce of tomatoes and onions. The recipe could be mistaken for Tuscan in the simplicity of its ingredients list. Other similar stews, called curries for lack of a better term, include dried beef and dried pork, which are good choices if you like chewy food. The most interesting of these curries involve organ meats. If you relish funky tasting tripe (here called by the expressive name of goep), or the gooier but less funky pig foot (kang chung), go directly to those menu choices because the quantity is especially generous.
The menu hedges its bets by additionally providing above-average Tibetan and Indian fare, and a few Indo-Chinese treats. The Tibetan choices are as plain and fundamental as the Bhutanese ones. Thenthuk ($6.99) is a bland vegetable soup with some spectacular homemade noodles in its depths — for once the broth doesn’t overshadow the flat, fleshy noodles. The dumplings called momo are fine, but aren’t momo always fine, wherever you get them in Queens? Best of all is chicken pepper corn ($7.99), which demonstrates that just like us, Himalayans have become obsessed with Sichuan peppercorns, and love to suck them down by the handful.
The dumplings called momo are fine, but aren’t momo always fine?
The Indian food is like good neighborhood Punjabi, given zip with plenty of ground spices. The palak paneer (spinach and homemade cheese, $8.99) is particularly dope, though the various vindaloos are disappointing in their lack of chile heat and acid. Indeed, some of the better Indian, Chinese, and Bhutanese selections are found among the starters, such as gyuma (a Tibetan blood sausage), drums of heaven (Indo-Chinese chicken wings), spring rolls (like Chinese carryout), and "cauliflower dry," which is one of the more exciting dishes on the menu — braised cauliflower coasted with a pale gravy, a recipe of unknown origin.
I hope I haven’t scared you away from trying Bhutanese food. Surely the menu at Ema Datsi accurately reflects the peasant cuisine of a country poor in agricultural resources — or any kind of resources. All I can say is, we are exposed to elaborately spiced foods from farflung points in the globe on a daily basis, and eating plain food for a change should come as something of a relief — like a miles-high mountain vacation in a remote corner of the world.
Cost: Dinner for two, with shared app, two mains, bread or rice and beverage, plus tax but not tip, $40.
Sample dishes: Ema datsi, drums of heaven, puta (buckwheat noodles), chicken pepper corn
What to drink: The adventuresome will try the national beverage of butter tea (not on the menu); Indian mango lassis or green tea are other good choices. Beer goes well, too – and Ema Datsi is gloriously BYOB.
Bonus tip: For an all-in meal at a fixed price, pick one of the thalis in the Bhutanese section of the menu, each of which includes curry, red rice, and a homemade pickle for less than $10.