When temperatures drop as winter arrives, New Yorkers seek comfort in big bowls of hot things, whether it’s jjigae in Flushing or ramen noodles sonorously slurped somewhere in the East Village. There’s another bowl that belongs in this lexicon: Consider bathuk, the Bhutanese relative of Tibet’s thick, deeply nourishing stew known as thentuk. Bathuk showcases stout scraps of chewy hand-torn or knife-cut noodles along with crunchy vegetables and tender slices of beef, pork, or chicken that have been poached in a collagen-rich stock for hours.
Bathuk takes center stages amidst an impressive array of Bhutanese fare at the Weekender, a snooker hall that doubles as a restaurant, tucked around the corner from the 7 train’s 52nd Street station, at 41-46 54th Street.
Around 7 p.m. on a chilly weeknight, both of the Weekender’s snooker tables were occupied. Judging by the sighs, cheers, and intermittent silence, the stakes were high. In the dining room, a couple shared a bowl of pumpkin stew topped with cilantro known as kakur jaju, and a group of roommates from Fort Greene huddled over menus as they sipped from steaming hot cups of butter tea. In a few moments, various plates accompanied by steaming mounds of fluffy red rice would begin pouring out of the small kitchen.
Like many restaurants in Jackson Heights and Elmhurst, the Weekender also serves momos, the ubiquitous Himalayan dumpling whose pleats resemble xiao long bao, and more loosely, the thicker-skinned Georgian khinkali. Here, they come two ways: One variety is stuffed with fragrant minced beef, and the other a mozzarella-like cheese that pulls into long strands with each bite. The plump hand-folded dumplings are the perfect foil for the Weekender’s house-made eze, a spicy condiment that combines tamarillo, cilantro, coriander, and various alliums with ground Sichuan peppercorns and ema kam, a dried red chile that the restaurant imports from Bhutan.
The same pepper, fresh and still retaining its bright green color, can be found in many of the other dishes. Along with butter, red rice, and fresh yak cheese, it’s one of the canonical ingredients of Bhutanese fare. Simmered with tomato, ginger, coriander, and garlic, the chile brings heat to the comforting chicken stew known as jasha maru. It finds its way into aloo dum, a garam masala-coated potato dish native to the Kashmir region. Crumbly feta acts as a stand-in for the tough-to-source traditional yak cheese in a number of offerings like hoentse datshi, a dish that resembles Punjabi saag.
It’s been a decade since the Weekender introduced Queens and the city to the food of Bhutan. Before it opened, the small country’s cuisine made appearances on the menus of other South Asian restaurants. Alongside Tibetan or Nepalese offerings, one might have noticed ema datshi, Bhutan’s national dish that finds slivers of green chile glossed in a tangy melted cheese sauce. Similarly, a restaurant preparing Indian Chinese dishes like Hakka noodles and Manchurian chicken might’ve also served puta, a buckwheat noodle dish with vegetables and scrambled egg.
Lhendup Zangmo saw a point of entry back in 2014: New York City did not have a Bhutanese restaurant at the time, so she and her partners opened the Weekender. The property was originally a doctor’s office before they purchased and renovated it, so it was a discerning move to position the Weekender as both a restaurant and communal gathering space.
In 2004, Zangmo had immigrated from eastern Bhutan to the United States. The same year her restaurant opened, her four children joined her. As the Weekender continues to serve its community in Woodside, Sunnyside, and beyond, two of her sons, Kelzang Thinley and Pema Jamtshok, celebrate their mother’s hard work.
Thinley remembers the culture shock he felt arriving in New York City from Bhutan, but thanks to the support from family members who had already established themselves here, the learning curve never felt insurmountable. Seating tables, running orders, and tending to the snooker tables, the brothers started working in the 40-seat restaurant right away.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, most of the Bhutanese refugees and immigrants that made their way to the U.S. in the late ’90s and early aughts as a result of government exile and neighboring Nepal’s refusal to grant citizenship settled in suburbs like Somerville, Massachusetts, and Clarkston, Georgia, or in small towns like Winooski, Vermont. While some of the original asylum seekers remain, New York City’s Bhutanese population is composed mostly of immigrants that made the journey later of their own accord.
“My mom didn’t want [the Weekender] to be just a restaurant because we don’t have a lot of Bhutanese people here in New York. She knew that if they didn’t support us at first, we’d be done,” Jamtshok says. “Insurance” came in the form of a snooker hall.
Beyond its identity as a cue sport, snooker has little in common with pool. Many consider the former to be more difficult, with its lightweight balls, wide table, and high-friction playing surface. Common in the U.K. as well as parts of Asia, the game likely made its way to Bhutan after it became popular throughout India during British occupation in the late 1800s.
It’s hard to imagine enjoying a plate of momos at the Weekender without the occasional crack of cue striking ball or lining up a combo without the cacophony of slurps coming from around the corner, for that matter.
“Snooker is a big deal in Bhutan. There’s a lot of snooker places where you can hang out and drink. And Bhutanese people like to eat when we drink. It just makes sense,” notes Jamtshok.
Past the snooker tables, there seems to be peaked interest in food from this specific part of the Himalayas. 2023 brought Zhego to the neighborhood — an operation started by three friends, one of whom had been selling Bhutanese meals from his apartment kitchen. And last summer, a food truck emblazoned with fiery chile pepper graphics alongside Bhutan’s flag rolled into town offering momos, dosas, and various chile and cheese-laced stir fries including its namesake, ema datshi.
The Weekender will celebrate its 10th anniversary in the fall. With an expanded menu, liquor license, and recently renovated dining room, the restaurant may not look exactly like it did in 2014. Early patrons might agree, though, that the Weekender’s bathuk carries the torch as a quintessential example of Bhutanese home cooking in New York City.
“I think people are getting more interested in Bhutan’s culture,” Thinley says. “In Bhutan, we have a thing called GNH. Other countries measure their growth in GDP. In Bhutan, we measure growth by happiness. Our country might be poor compared to others, but the people are rich.”