BY JOE DISTEFANO
As the Culinary King of Queens, I’m so very fortunate to live in the most diverse and delicious destination in all of New York City. Really I’m not royalty though, I’m an ambassador, and a hungry one at that. Today, we visit Nepal via Jackson Heights, a neighborhood I have taken to calling Himalayan Heights due to the profusion of Tibetan and Nepali eateries. There’s none quite like Nepali Bhanchha Ghar, a two-level love letter to the country’s cuisine.
“Authentic Nepali Food & Asian Fusion,” reads the small print in green beneath the name of Chef Yamuna “Bimla” Shrestha’s four-year old temple to Nepali gastronomy. The menu features many dishes including musky goat sukuti—an air dried jerky—and chicken choila, an appetizer that gets its incendiary heat from red chilies and ginger. That chicken along with other spicy nibbles like Wai Wai sandheko—crushed instant noodles shot through with tomato, garlic, onion, and green chile—is a popular snack for the men who gather nightly in the restaurant’s downstair’s dining room to sip BYO bottles of whiskey.
I love all those dishes, but for now we’re going to examine one that’s a cold weather staple for me, jhol momo. It consists of the dumplings beloved throughout the Himalayan diaspora, in a chicken broth that gets its hue from tomatoes, and its warming flavor from green chili, garlic, and ginger. I like to get them filled with chicken.
Shrestha’s jhol momo are so good that come winter I eat them at least once a week. In fact they’re award winning. For the past three years they’ve taken top honors at the Momo Crawl, a yearly event that brings hundreds to the hood every fall to vote for “Best Momo in Town.” The prize, a yak hide leather wrestling belt with a gilded momo in the center, adorns the upstairs dining room/kitchen.
“Can Bhanchha Ghar be defeated? Are they the Joey Chestnut of the Momo Crawl?,” asks Jeff Orlick founder of the Momo Crawl, comparing Shrestha and her team to the competitive eater who has won the Nathan’s Famous annual July Fourth hot dog eating contest 12 times. “You can bet there are plenty who want to bring the Momo Belt back to Tibetan soil.”
There are of course other things to eat besides momo at the restaurant whose name means “Nepali Eating House.” Chief among them is the thali, a platter bearing a mound of rice and the protein of your choice—goat and goat jerky are both excellent as is the chicken curry—ringed by various tiny heaps of pickles, including bitter melon and radish, and a bowl of buttery lentil daal. It’s a feast that’s meant to be eaten South Asian style with one’s hands by taking small amounts of rice and mixing them with the various flavorful components. Run out of rice? The server will be around soon enough to offer you more. Eating with one’s hands is a skill that doesn’t come easy to Westerners, including this one. A more manageable alternative to the rice-based thali is one featuring dhedo, a greyish blob of nutty tasting buckwheat and millet dough, that’s easy and fun to eat with one’s fingers.
For dessert there’s milky rich chai and tsel roti. The name may call to mind a South Asian bread, but it’s actually a doughnut made from a batter of rice and ghee. The golden nubbly crust gives way to a sweet interior, a perfect finish to a Nepali repast.