If, like many New Yorkers with a taste for Tibetan food, you are used to finding your momos and shapaley at the top of rickety staircases, or behind cellphone stores, or in the backs of gift shops, your first trip to Nha Sang in Elmhurst, Queens, may come as something of a shock.
Nha Sang is almost certainly the grandest and most elaborately designed Tibetan restaurant in the city. Behind doors decked with Tibetan prayer flags is a double-height modern space, painted nutmeg brown, with more than 100 seats on the ground floor and slightly fewer in a glassed-in balcony. The dark wood tables and tall simulated-leather chairs look as if they are waiting to welcome an annual meeting of regional sales managers in the conference center of a recently opened Embassy Suites.
They are, in fact, more likely to be taken over by Buddhist monks in cranberry robes or by large, intergenerational families, the youngest children tearing off strips of steamed dough from fist-size braids of tingmo before shakily passing the bread to their grandparents. Big groups like this are often seated against one wall, on a long bench covered with carpets and cushions woven in traditional Tibetan patterns. Running above this bench is a backlighted transparency of Lhasa, a panoramic view of the capital city’s palaces and temples rising from the two-mile-high Tibetan Plateau.
The restaurant is full of large gestures. The photograph of Lhasa is at least 12 feet long. Near the entrance, a half-scale Buddha cast from bronze sits in his own room, surrounded by offerings of fruit and water. In the middle of the dining room is a modern interpretation of a nomadic dried-mud stove, equipped with an electronic flame instead of the customary bricks of burning yak dung.
Chusang Nhasang opened the restaurant in May with her brother, sister, mother and father. She or one of her siblings will probably guide you through the menu with kindness and patience that stand out even by the high standards of Tibetan hospitality. Her father contributed the Buddha and other vintage pieces around the restaurant. Many of the Tibetan recipes come from her mother, who has been known to take over the kitchen on very busy nights.
This is the second Nha Sang the Nhasangs have owned. The first was in Burnsville, Minn., outside Minneapolis, where they settled after immigrating from Tibet. The Minneapolis area has the second-largest Tibetan community in the United States. Nevertheless, the Nhasangs hedged their bets, fluffing out their menu of Tibetan dishes with General Tso’s chicken, Thai and Vietnamese curries, and a few recipes — like walleye in jalapeño-basil sauce and a cranberry-chicken curry — that intriguingly suggest that Minnesota might be a long-lost Asian nation.
The family closed the original Nha Sang last year and moved from the second-largest Tibetan community to the largest. With their new restaurant in Queens, they eighty-sixed the walleye. General Tso has lived to fight another day, along with a few other Chinese takeout staples. Almost everything else on Nha Sang’s menu is either Tibetan or Sichuan.
The two cuisines are not often found together in Queens, but they are in Asia. The largest population of Tibetans outside Tibet lives in Sichuan’s capital, Chengdu. Since the annexation of Tibet by China in 1951, large numbers of Han Chinese, many from the Sichuan Province, have moved in the other direction, to Tibet. Often, they go with the encouragement of Beijing, one of many tactics the Chinese government has used to mold Tibet’s people and culture to fit Han Chinese standards.
The Nhasangs themselves are from Ngaba, which is in the Amdo region of northeastern Tibetan, a cultural borderland where Tibetan and Sichuan traditions meet. China has decreed that Ngaba is within Sichuan Province.
If you are rooting for Tibetan identity to survive, you may find the restaurant’s double-barreled menu unnerving. But it reflects modern Tibet, where time has not stood still. Today, many Tibetans weaned on yak-butter tea have come to appreciate the lip-tingling power of mapo tofu. The stomach doesn’t always recognize political distinctions.
“There isn’t anything political about the restaurant,” Chusang’s brother, Shenphen, said in a phone interview. “If food is good, I’ll eat it.”
Ngaba’s location may explain why certain dishes at Nha Sang seem just a bit spicier than at other Tibetan restaurants around town.
A non-trivial amount of fresh red chiles shows up in the ping-sha riri, which is almost but not quite a soup, made from drenching a squiggly bowlful of cellophane noodles in dark, oily liquid seasoned with beef and fragrant with Sichuan peppercorns. The nearly sweet chile paste that clings to the shapta, a classic Tibetan meat stir-fry, gives off a noticeable warmth. Nha Sang’s thentuk can be ordered with or without spice. Without, it is a fairly quiet soup of vegetables and ragged squarish hand-pulled noodles the size of Wheat Chex; the spicy version is a little pinker with chile flakes and chile oil.
Still, the back of your throat will tell you when you cross over to the Sichuan side of the menu. This is especially true if you order, as you should, the mala fish, which is made up of dozens of thumb-size bits of crunchy fish stir-fried with dried chiles and Sichuan peppercorns until they are almost smoking. The dish is similar to Chongqing chicken, which is also served, but with less exciting results. Sichuan-style seafood at Nha Sang, particularly the broiled whole fish with what the menu unhelpfully calls “spicy sauce,” is generally more compelling than the Sichuan chicken, pork or beef.
There is more than a sampling of Sichuan appetizers. Ignore the drab dan dan noodles and zero in on chilled beef and tripe “husband and wife” style, incandescent with chile oil; lightly crushed cucumbers whose bruises are treated with garlic, vinegar and sesame seeds; fat bricks of bean jelly in a mortar of chile paste and green onions.
The Sichuan dumplings in chile oil aren’t bad, either. But it is hard to leave a Tibetan restaurant without having tried a momo or two. Nha Sang’s have thinner, more delicate skins than some others, a definite plus. And if the fillings (chopped beef, chicken, pork or chives) aren’t as juicy as they could be, some vivid red momo sauce can take care of that. The shapaley, those fried Tibetan turnovers, are stuffed only with beef. Again, they are improved by momo sauce.
For dessert there is tsampa ice cream sprinkled with powdered tsampa, or a tsampa cake. Tsampa — toasted barley — is a defining flavor of Tibet’s high-altitude cooking. It is also a symbol of Tibetan identity.
Barley on barley is a little austere for some palates, but you do not come to Nha Sang for symphonies of dense custard and shattering tuile. You come to look at Tibet in one of the few ways you can, through the eyes of the people who left it.