Great pleasures sometimes lurk in bland and simple food. Cholsum proves it. This tiny Tibetan café, located right on Roosevelt Avenue near Jackson Heights’ western frontier, is named after a collective term used to describe the Tibetan homeland and the diaspora of its citizens in Sichuan and Yunnan. The restaurant replaces GangJong Kitchen, another Tibetan café, and two other Himalayan spots are found within earshot. Welcome to Shangri-La, minus the mountains and snow.
Painted bright orange and pink, the room seats only 16. As if framed in a marionette theater, the chef and his assistant can be seen through a small rectangular window. They look out from time to time,to check on your enjoyment of the food. Tibetan textiles grace the walls, and the Dalai Lama beams down from on high. A blessed quietude prevails, as immigrants from various Asian countries, often wearing their national outfits, scurry by in the street outside. Strain your ears and you can almost hear temple bells.
The population of Tibet is traditionally nomadic, and its range of foodstuffs limited. Yak meat and yogurt are staples, as are fresh green herbs, wheaten dumplings, mung bean starch, and steamed bread. Since the terrain is challenging, agriculture is all but impossible, and this quintessential fact is reflected in the food. So don’t look for red ripe tomatoes or succulent fruits at Cholsum. Nor is Tibet located along spice routes, so flavorings are limited to the scallions and cilantro that give the cuisine its vibrancy.
There is plenty of excitement in mung bean starch alone.
But enough of Tibet’s gastronomic limitations. There is plenty of excitement in mung bean starch alone — a clear jelly that comes molded into noodles and cakes. Against this slipperiness chopsticks are all but useless. In the French-sounding laphing ($4), railroad ties of the pale and translucent starch are heaped up and an oily red sauce dribbled over the top. The first nibble is cool on the tongue, but then chile flakes light up your mouth. Next the Sichuan peppercorns kick in, like chewing on an electric wire. These peppercorns are a recent addition to the Tibetan spice shelf, the result of migration over the mountain passes to China in the north.
In spicy phing ($5) the starch is cut into transparent and colorless fettucine, then dumped into a broth zapped with garlic and black vinegar, with chopped green onions and cilantro on top. Phing in soup ($6) is the unspicy counterpart. Both can be had in vegetarian and beef-bearing versions, with beef being the universal substitute for yak at every Tibetan restaurant in the U.S.; somehow, the American yak-farming industry never got off the ground. The empty spaces around LaGuardia might be the perfect place for a yak ranch.
Unfortunately, the beef used at Cholsum is as tough as a rime-encrusted winter boot, so tender-beef fanciers would do well to avoid those dishes that incorporate big pieces of it, such as beef salad, beef chili, and the so-called "special rice plate." Instead, go for those wherein the beef appears in minced form, such as the wonderful sha bhaklep ($7), which almost sounds like Yiddish, but represents a trio of baked empanadas with handsome braided spines, perfect traveling food. Put one in your pocket for the subway ride home.
One of the best things on Cholsum’s menu is even simpler than momo — Tibetan special yogurt.
Beef also appears to semi-spectacular effect in beef with potato ($9), the only occurrence of spuds on the menu. In a rich chile sauce with a few tiny chunks of meat, this stew is as close as Tibetan food comes to Indian. One can’t help but think of potatoes in this context as a rare and desirable ingredient carried from exotic lands, just as Europeans must have felt about them in the 16th century. Hey, this dish is every bit as good as french fries, I swear!
The national signature and best-known Tibetan snack is the momo (8 for $6) — a round, thick-skinned, steamed dumpling with a pucker on top. Four types are available: beef, scallion, beef and scallion, and chicken. At the momo carts a block west, beef is often the only kind available, but at Cholsum, chicken rules. One of the best things on Cholsum’s menu is even simpler than momo — Tibetan special yogurt ($4). Snowed with crystals of raw brown sugar, and possessing a perfect texture that allows it to pull away in tendrils with every tart and tasty bite, this homemade product is as good as yogurt gets anywhere in the world, mountainous or not. It’s also your only choice for dessert.
Cost: Dinner for two, with steamer of momo, noodle soup, bowl of laphing, and two cups of tea, including tax but not tip, $24.
Sample dishes: Mogthuk (dumpling soup), tingmo (braided steamed bread), chicken momo, fried spinach (actually, sauteed with chiles), spicy laphing (mung-bean-noodle soup).
What to drink: Butter tea is the national beverage, a hot emulsion of butter, milk, and black tea; amdo tea is virtually the same thing without the butter.
Bonus tip: Faced with a choice of beef, chicken, or vegetarian in any dish, pick the poultry.