By Suzanne Parker
Some people collect art or antiques. For others it’s baseball cards or sports memorabilia. No matter what the collectors’ object of desire, one common trait is to find an exemplar that is especially rare.
In our case, it is diverse cuisines that incite our passion, the more obscure the better.
It’s no wonder then that when we read in one of our favorite food blogs, “Eating in Translation” (www.eatingintranslation.com), by Dave Cook, that a Bhutanese restaurant had opened in Woodside, our interest was piqued.
Never mind that food critic/author Ruth Reichl once famously said that Bhutan—with its staple ingredients of chilis and yak cheese—had the worst cuisine on the planet. We were off to prove her wrong.
Your mini-geography lesson is that Bhutan is a landlocked Himalayan kingdom bordered by India to the east and China to the north. Most Bhutanese are adherents of the Drukpa school of Mahayana Buddhism. Although a monarchy, Bhutan became a democracy, holding its first elections in 2008.
Late in 2014, Lekay Drakpa opened what he claims is the only Bhutanese restaurant in New York City. This Tibetan with the undercut-topped hairstyle is a former monk and Subway counterman. He named his restaurant Ema Datsi after Bhutan’s national dish of cheese and chili peppers.
Bhutanese Ema Datsi occupies the former digs of a Chinese restaurant, and retains some of its predecessor’s East Asian décor, overlaid with photos of Bhutanese royals and scenery. The menu shares its Bhutanese bragging rights with a comparable number of specialties from Tibet and India.
Red rice is the staple of the Bhutanese diet, accessorized with small dishes of spicy, protein-heavy stews. Bhutanese red rice, is a semi-milled rice, the bits of rice bran clinging to the grains and giving it a speckled pinkish appearance. A bulky mound of it was central to the various Bhutanese thalis on the menu.
Thalis are set meals served on a round tray, in this case a red and black sushi tray. Of the six thali choices, we tried three. All came with identical accompaniments. There was a bland, cloudy white soup with a leafy green vegetable alongside the thali. The platter itself harbored, along with the rice, a bowl of a potato filled vegetable sauce reminiscent of sambhar, an all-purpose sauce for combining with rice, or anything else within reach. There is also a glob of what amounted to an incendiary Bhutanese salsa for adding extra heat.
The dominant meat in the Sekam thali is dried pork. It is reconstituted in the spicy sauce so that is thoroughly fatty, and not at all dry. This dish pairs slices of cooked daikon with the pork. The Nor Sha Paa thali features fresh (uncured) beef. This was a stir fry of beef, green beans, plenty of garlic, and chilies. The flavor was scorchingly appealing, but the beef was tough and stringy.
Our third thali, Shak am datsi, was built of dry beef with onions and peppers that tasted like poblanos in a light cheese sauce. We discovered, by also ordering the namesake Ema Datsi, a standalone, not a thali, that the Shak am datsi was a non-vegetarian version of the Ema. Both were fiery hot, but somehow comforting. We preferred the Ema to the meat version. We would love it if they added a thali with Ema Datsi as its anchor dish. Washing any of the above down with beer from the nearby deli is highly recommended.
The Bottom Line
We can’t agree with Ruth Reichl’s diss of Bhutanese cuisine. If you have a reasonable tolerance for spicy food, there’s plenty there to explore and enjoy. Fortunately, Bhutanese Ema Datsi is a lot closer to home than the Himalayas.
Suzanne Parker is the TimesLedger’s restaurant critic and author of “Eating Like Queens: A Guide to Ethnic Dining in America’s Melting Pot, Queens, N.Y.” She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bhutanese Ema Datsi
67-21 Woodside Ave,
Price Range: Appetizers: $2.99—$8.99, Mains: $6.99—$10.99
Cuisine: Bhutanese, Tibetan & Indian
Setting: Small, unpretentious
Service: Friendly, obliging.
Hours: Seven days lunch and dinner
Alcohol: License pending
Children: If they eat really spicy food.
Credit cards: Yes
Noise level: Acceptable
Handicap accessible: Yes