The Tengri Tagh, or Mountains of Heaven, are a range that straddles the borders of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan in Central Asia, and China’s Autonomous Territory of Xinjiang in the country’s remote northwest. Its 24,000-foot peaks — which include Khan Tegri, or “Lord of the Spirits” — line up like a serrated knife edge covered in gleaming white snow, a striking sight from the brown desert plains of Xinjiang.
Tengri Tagh is also the name of the city’s newest Uyghur restaurant, representing the food of China’s persecuted Turkic Muslim minority. Their food combines Silk Road influences from Turkey to Central Asia on the west, and Chinese food to the east, with lots of dumplings, noodles, stir fries, soups, and grilled meats. While we already had a half dozen or so Uyghur restaurants, mainly in Flushing but also in Brighton Beach and the Financial District, this is the first in Midtown Manhattan — giving the cuisine a shot at greater mainstream popularity, at least among office workers and department store shoppers.
It opened in April at 144 West 37th Street, between Sixth and Seventh avenues, three blocks north of Macy’s just west of Broadway between Herald and Times squares. The owner and chefs are Ruxianguli Balati and her husband Kudusi Simayi. She makes the noodles and dumplings, while he handles soups, stir fries, pastries, and breads. The pair previously owned a restaurant with a similar name and menu in Malden, Massachusetts.
The dining room is narrow and high-ceilinged with zig-zagging gray panels on the walls, upon which the usual decorations we’ve come to expect in Uyghur restaurants abound. Included are miniature tanburs (five-stringed plucked and bowed musical instruments) and embroidered Muslim skullcaps, such as the one Simayi wears as he tends the stove while Balati stands behind the counter taking orders.
For most New Yorkers, their earliest exposure to Uyghur food was “big tray chicken” at Spicy Village. Known in Chinese as da pan ji, it consisted of a wok of bubbling chile oil bobbing with bone-in pieces of chicken and potatoes, with fresh noodles in its depths. Over the top were sprinkled mouth-numbing quantities of crushed Sichuan peppercorns, and it was one of the hottest dishes in town when it debuted on the Lower East Side in 2011.
So, we’d seen the dish, which became popular all over China, in its Henan interpretation, but what does the original look like? At Tengri Tagh, “chicken mixed with spices braised in potatoes” (in three sizes: $15, $26, and $37) is altogether more approachable, incorporating a modest number of mild green chiles in a sparse gravy dotted with black Asian cumin seeds, with a less aggressive flavor scheme heavy on leeks and onions. No Sichuan peppercorns are added, but red bell peppers add a touch of sweetness.
Grilled meats don’t play a role here, unlike other Uyghur restaurants in town, but lamb still predominates among the meat and poultry options, and noodles and their dumpling counterparts account for more than half the dishes on the 30-item menu. Most notable are the hand-pulled noodles called lagman (“handmade noodle with Uyghur stir-fried lamb,” $14), which are thickish floppy strands of spaghetti heaped with chunky lamb tinged with tomato and featuring slippery and almost crunchy cloud-ear fungus.
These same black mushrooms reappear in what passes for a vegetable side dish with nothing but some sesame oil and fresh red chiles, going by the rather unappealing name of cold fungus ($6). Three other common Chinese side dishes include rectangular white railroad ties of bean jelly, chives scrambled with eggs, and tea-boiled eggs at the bargain price of a dollar apiece.
There’s also a soup with small lamb dumplings that might be mistaken for Russian pelmeni, which the menu refers to as ravioli ($11). But apart from these foreign-influenced dishes, just above everything is mainstream Uyghur without apologies, using a limited roster of ingredients, most of which have already been mentioned above with the addition of carrots and cilantro.
The thick-skinned dumplings known as manti are spectacular. They come with a coarse and oily red chile paste on the side, similar to what is found at the Himalayan dumpling carts of Jackson Heights. Lamb seasoned with onions is as far as the filling goes, but it’s utterly satisfying and speaks of a nomadic food culture along the Silk Road. In a similar vein but even better are the meat pies called samsa ($3 for two), dotted with black and white sesame seeds on top, and each bulging with a single meatball that the pastry can barely contain. They put most of the city’s empanadas to shame.
Eating one’s way around the brief menu, you’re likely to realize how amazing the food at Tengri Tagh is in its honest simplicity. While some Uyghur restaurants in the Washington, DC, area have vastly expanded their menus to include seafood, tofu, and borrowings from Tibetan, Indian, and Chinese cuisines, Tengri Tagh retains its uncomplicated menu and simple flavors, redolent of the Silk Road of centuries ago. In fact, as you eat your plate of lagman or manti, you might as well be eating in someone’s kitchen in Kashkar, the Uyghur capital — a pleasing illusion, to be sure.