It was 11 years ago that I first visited Phayul, a Tibetan cafe hidden up a flight of stairs behind a beauty parlor in Jackson Heights. I distinctly recall noticing and wondering why a few of the dishes were laced with Sichuan peppercorns. The spice had a profound impact on a cuisine usually veering on the unspicy side, despite the occasional use of fresh green chiles. A bit of research revealed that Tibetan expats constitute the Sichuan capital Chengdu’s largest ethnic minority, so the influence of Sichuan seasonings in Tibetan cuisine is utterly understandable. Now a new restaurant has appeared on Elmhurst’s bustling stretch of Broadway that further explores the confluence of the fiery Chinese cuisine and that of Tibet, by providing a menu divided into Tibetan and Sichuanese dishes.
Open only a month, Nha Sang was miraculously transplanted from a southern suburb of Minneapolis by a pair of Tibetan siblings: Sonam Jyit Nhasang and Chusang Dolma Nhasang, who prefer to be known as the Nhasang sisters. The restaurant occupies the former home of a Cantonese banquet hall, with spotlights on a soaring ceiling, ethnographic artifacts in what might be Cornell boxes, and an intimate banquet room that looks down on the main floor. As a friend and I entered, there was a Tibetan music video of singers with snowy mountain backdrops. We spotted a group of crimson-robed monks enjoying a steamer of momos at a table beneath the screen.
And those were serious momos. Big, bulging, and creased along the top, they come with a choice of fillings — beef, pork, chicken, or vegetable — and can be ordered steamed ($12) or fried ($14). A friend and I checked out the fried pork dumplings, which arrived bronzed like a lifeguard at the end of the summer, with a compact meatball inside, along with a cup of a red chile sauce much like sriracha. They were gone in a flash.
The menu offers 11 Tibetan entrees in a sort of greatest hits of the cuisine, a nice alternative to the sometimes overly long Himalayan menus of Jackson Heights. Beef shapta ($15) is another classic, a tender beef julienne stir fried with onions and scallions, to which plenty of garlic and ginger have been added and just a schmear of tomato sauce — an agreeable showcase for the soft, steakhouse-quality beef.
The best Tibetan entree we tried — and a powerhouse of the cuisine — was beef thenthuk. Incorporating a rich pink broth that tastes of herbs that might have been plucked from the side of a mountain footpath, the soup is filled with torn noodles in an anarchistic array, as if to say, we don’t care if all the noodles are the same shape and size. The soup needs some accompaniment, and there’s nothing better than the ting momo, a massive braided and steamed bun that’s the only Tibetan bread offered on the menu. Pull off little hunks of the fluffy dough and swipe through the soup.
Sichuan and other Chinese regional dishes (and Indian ones, too) often dot Tibetan and Nepalese menus here, but more often than not, I’ve found the versions pallid. At Nha Sang, much of the Sichuan food is every bit as good as one might find in Flushing or Sunset Park. Dishes are swimming in red chile oil with a generous dusting of powdered peppercorns, intent on demolishing your tongue with their Novocaine-like tingle. Six dishes feature seafood, in a separate section from the nine-item Sichuan entrees.
In the over-$35 range part of the menu, there are two whole fish treatments (species varies) ideal for sharing, but we went for the easier-to-eat braised fish filet with napa cabbage ($20). It was fiery and relentlessly red, the boneless swatches of filet piled in profusion, just like something you might get at Little Pepper or Land of Plenty. A couple of shrimp dishes are also offered, including Grand Marnier walnut shrimp, a standard here in Cantonese dim sum halls that probably originated in Hong Kong. This is not a complaint, but it does show that Nha Sang sometimes plays fast and loose with its dishes, even ones designated as Sichuanese.
Similarly, the famous Chongqing chicken comes with breaded nuggets of poultry, rather than the usual naked and bony morsels found elsewhere. Still, there are plenty of dried red peppers and peppercorns, and you’ll find this version considerably easier to eat. There are vegetarian dishes on the menu, too. Some of those meatless dishes include the shredded potatoes and green peppers ($15), which are common in Sichuan. Meanwhile, plain fried noodles and fried rice are very much in a Tibetan-Chinese vein, more mild but still satisfying.
The bold presentation of Sichuan-level spice on much of the menu, coupled with the careful execution of Tibetan standards at a level higher than the casual Himalayan beaneries of Jackson Heights are reason enough to check out Nha Sang.
Nha Sang is located at 83-17 Broadway, at Dongan Avenue, Elmhurst.