By LIGAYA MISHAN
A SLIGHT change in altitude is required to dine at Phayul, a Tibetan restaurant that opened a year and a half ago on (or more precisely, above) 74th Street, the Little India strip of Jackson Heights, Queens.
First, you must turn the corner to find the entrance, on 37th Road, between a jewelry store and a beauty parlor. Follow the signs for “Himalayan Eyebrow Threading” up a narrow twisting staircase. At the top, to your left, is Phayul’s economical dining room, with sun saturating the windows, just five tables and a few counter seats by the open kitchen.
Those expecting Tibetan food to be all mildness and calm may be shocked when a slow paralysis takes hold of the tongue. The cause is emma, better known as Sichuan peppercorn, a spice found on the Tibetan plateau.
It infiltrates a purplish-black blood sausage, gyuma ngoe ma ($7.99), at once crumbly and wet, and shoko sil sil ngoe ma ($6.99), potatoes that are shredded and tossed with scallions, chile pepper and enough emma to make your jaw throb. In laphing ($3.99), it is heaped on tremulous slabs of mung-bean jelly that slip gleefully through your chopsticks. Maneuver them into your mouth, and you will sit for a while with a beatific, immobile smile.
There is little trace here of India, which borders Tibet and whose influence often manifests at local Tibetan restaurants in the form of languid, underseasoned curries. At Phayul, whose name means fatherland, the food is livelier and more rugged, true to what you might find in Kham and Amdo, regions that straddle eastern Tibet and western Sichuan.
From the alpine villages of Kham comes the soup tsak sha la kor ($7.99), brimming with hunks of beef, translucent moons of daikon, scallions and whole chile peppers, and perfumed with mountain herbs that are ascribed, in Tibetan medicine, with healing powers. You breathe it as much as consume it. Beef thenthuk ($6.99), a dish from the nomads on the austere steppe of Amdo, has a mellower broth that clings to gristly cuts of meat and raggedy noodles that have been stretched and torn by hand, with a texture close to dumpling skins.
Momos ($4.99) are cousins to soup dumplings, but with thicker skins, in perfect pleats. They gush when pierced, their juices flaring with cilantro and ginger. Tingmo ($1), also classified on the menu as a dumpling, is in fact a type of bread akin to Chinese mantou, ghost-white and dense, like a vacuum-packed cloud. On its own it has little flavor, but it is helpful for mopping up, and taking the edge off, the omnipresent chile peppers.
Dawa Lhamo, who owns the restaurant with her husband, Chime Tendha, will graciously guide you through the menu. Do not be surprised if she recommends fried rice or lo mein: they are favorites of Tibetan diners. Other dishes that nod to Tibet’s long, tangled relationship with China are dofu khatse ngoen ma ($5.99), tofu wallowing in a volatile chile sauce, and phaksha solo goenpo ($7.99), twice-fried pork with glistening strata of fat.
On the walls are black-and-white photographs of Lhasa before the uprising of 1959, which was suppressed by the Chinese government. Gently moderating the scene is the Dalai Lama, beaming down from a framed photograph on a shelf lined with offering bowls filled with candy.
There is no dessert, so end with salty butter tea ($1). It tastes like melted butter, no more, no less, without a flicker of the black tea at its heart. In Tibet it is made with yak butter. You’ll miss the funk. Still, do a shot and you will be warm all the way home.
37-65 74th Street (37th Road), second floor; Jackson Heights, Queens; (718) 424-1869.
RECOMMENDED Tsak sha la kor (soup with beef, radish and Tibetan mountain herbs); beef thenthuk (hand-pulled noodle soup); tsak sha momo (beef dumplings); laphing (mung-bean-jelly noodles with chile sauce); shoko sil sil ngoe ma (shredded potato with green pepper).
PRICES $1 to $8.99, cash only.
HOURS Daily, 10:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.
RESERVATIONS Not accepted.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS Dining room is on second floor, accessible only by a narrow staircase. Restroom is too small to accommodate wheelchairs and not equipped with handrail.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: October 4, 2012
An earlier version of this column misidentified a business near Phayul. The restaurant’s entrance is between a jewelry store and a beauty parlor, not a kebab restaurant and a beauty parlor. (The kebab restaurant has closed.)
Published in The New York Times