As restaurants continue to debut in the East Village even during the pandemic, one of the most arresting newcomers is Lhasa. This Tibetan establishment occupies a flashy corner storefront on East 11th Street, just down the block from Veniero’s, in the old Little Tong Noodle Shop. The site of the breathtaking Potala Palace, which was once the dalai lama’s winter residence, Lhasa is the capital of a Tibet Autonomous Region that is now part of China, as well as being the name of the restaurant.
It’s been over a decade since Himalayan restaurants, principally from Tibet and Nepal, began appearing with regularity in Jackson Heights and nearby neighborhoods, sometimes displacing earlier Indian, Bangladeshi, and Pakistani places. They eventually numbered in the dozens and offered overlapping menus of hand-torn noodles, vegetable-intensive soups and stir-fries, plenty of lamb and chicken, and, most importantly, the turban-shaped dumplings sided with a red chile sauce known as momos.
Each restaurant had its own specialties, with places like Delhi Heights and Mustang Thakali Kitchen offering deeper dives into the craggy cuisines. But the menus were often more limited, and included reworkings of southern Chinese and northern Indian classic dishes. Though Curry Hill has supported Himalayan establishments, the East Village has been notably deficient, having had only two over the last 20 years by my count, in an area known for its vast range of culinary choices.
Immortalized by Anthony Bourdain in Parts Unknown, its predecessor, called Lhasa Fast Food, was famously hidden in the back of a commercial arcade in Jackson Heights. It spun off a bigger branch in nearby Elmhurst, Lhasa Fresh Food, both of which are still open. The owner of all three is Sang Jien Ben, who grew up in the Tibetan town of Rebgong.
Many evenings he sits in the front of Lhasa’s COVID-empty dining room by the front door at his laptop, but will gladly to come to the side door to kibbitz. This door leads to the kitchen in one direction, and some comfortable outdoor tables in the other. These are located in a series of white pavilions with colorful prayer flags flapping along their canvas edges, making a meal feel transportive, the surrounding tenements rising like mountains. Inquire at that side door for a table, and a waiter will seat you.
While not overly complicated or regionally based, the menu at Lhasa is longer than many of the tinier Himalayan cafes in Jackson Heights. One of the first things that strikes you is the list of momos. These round dumplings with a pucker at the top are here more compact than usual, and deep-fried rather than steamed, giving the shell a semi-crunch that make them endearing. The emphasis is more on the stuffings than the dough, a reverse of what’s typical in Queens.
With five of the eight types vegetarian, the range of fillings is broad. The best way to approach them is via the Lhasa combo ($14), which plates one of each. The shredded carrot filling was a revelation in brightly colored sweetness; the potato rib-sticking, like a Tibetan pierogi; and the beef and chive even better, a picture of moisture and meatiness. The others are chicken, beef, zucchini, chive, and mushroom.
For me, the highlight of the menu are the thenthuk. These noodles made from scratch have been rolled flat and then ripped into irregular, rag-like shapes. They are best stir-fried in either a vegetarian version containing mushrooms, bell peppers, and scallions, or with meat (pork, lamb, chicken, or beef). The lamb thenthuk ($14) is particularly tasty. Indeed, lamb appears in fewer places than you might expect, but its usage here, heavily scented with ginger and garlic, is prodigal.
The same thenthuk are available in soups, but this being the dog days of August, with soaring temperatures and unbearable humidity, you may just want to skip them. There are cooling dishes aplenty for sweltering weather, though. Brushed with chile sauce and slightly vinegary, cold noodle is a hot-weather delight. These Tibetan linguine, cool on the tongue and vinegary, have a little shredded cabbage and carrot for crunch, though not enough to distract you from the delight of eating pasta.
Shoko phingsha is similarly wonderful, a straggly heap of barely cooked julienne potatoes laced with flat and translucent mung bean noodles. It tastes of the earth, with a sight tingle from Sichuan peppercorns. It resembles a common Sichuan dish, demonstrating the connections bred by proximity between China and the historically independent Tibet.
Hopping around the menu, find the crumbly pork-blood sausage known as gyuma, perfect for those for whom pork blood and its funky, loamy flavor isn’t a deterrent. Perhaps best of all, and a dish I haven’t seen anywhere else besides the Lhasa chainlet, is sushi lhamo ($8). Lhamo means “goddess” in Tibetan, and this charming app is basically maki rolls made with noodles, tofu, and chile sauce. Really, it could be your entree, and is better than any other vegetarian sushi I’ve encountered. Beyond Sushi, take note. 177 First Avenue, at East 11th Street, East Village