For some, a visit to Lhasa Fast Food has become a sort of pilgrimage, one stop on a trail of culinary discovery blazed by the late Anthony Bourdain. Hidden in plain sight, within a mini shopping enclave in Jackson Heights, Queens, Lhasa Fast Food is the Tibetan surprise at the end of a corridor of cell phone shops, a tailoring business, and jewelry stores.
For lovers of momos, Tibetan dumplings filled with pork or beef and heaps of chives or cilantro, Lhasa has been an open secret. Its walls, the color of creamsicle, are adorned with the American flag and a framed photograph of Bourdain with the restaurant’s owner and chef, Sang Jien Ben. The laminated menus are frayed, the daily specials are stuck to the wall, scrawled on green printer paper. The open kitchen is a fog of boiling stew pots, steam baskets, and the constant swish and thwack of freshly-rolled dough for dumplings and noodles. The Dalai Lama gazes beatifically over the proceedings from another framed portrait on a perch above the kitchen.
The decor is sparse, the tableware disposable, but the food is a hearty invitation into Tibetan food culture. Steaming bowls of thenthuk, hand-pulled nubs of noodles swimming in a tomato-chili broth replete with vegetables and beef, are popular, as is shapta, fiery strips of beef fried with mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns. Bamboo steamers full of momos occupy every table, served with a hot sauce that feels like a call to arms.
The Tibetan population in the United States is small, estimated roughly at around 9,000 in 2008. In Jackson Heights, the Tibetan community has been growing steadily since the early 2000s, rubbing shoulders with Nepalis, Bangladeshis, Indians, and Peruvians that populate one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the United States. Lhasa Fast Food opens a tiny doorway into the foodways of this underrepresented community.