The hot salad called logo-patsel was one of the brightest things I’ve ever eaten, a blisteringly spicy bowl of shredded carrots, cabbage, a little tomato, and chopped cilantro in a warm tomato-vinegar broth with lots of chilies, garlic, and ginger. The Tibetan entrée was boringly referred to as “stir-fried cabbage with carrot” on the menu, but though the vegetables were cooked, it must have only been for five seconds. They retained a vivid freshness that made me want to keep digging my spoon into the enormous bowl they came in ($8.50, available with optional beef, chicken, or tofu). Colored in beautiful yellows, oranges, and reds, they were a perfect thing to eat in winter.
The next day, the leftovers had mysteriously lost their bite of heat. But they still tasted good, now like some particularly fervent and authentic version of borscht. Tibetan food is often compared to Indian and Chinese cuisines, but the dishes at Brooklyn’s Café Tibet in Ditmas Park also reminded me of a number of Eastern European and Ashkenazi Jewish delights. The excellent beef momo (steamed dumplings) with an unusual, fruity, yellow hot sauce ($8.99 for eight large dumplings) owed more to pierogie than to Chinese jiaozi. And some of the vegetable dishes, like tsam-thuk, the Tibetan nomad soup made with roasted barley, radishes, carrot, and cottage cheese ($4.25), evoke the old Jewish dairy restaurants like Ratner’s. Others recall the pungent salads and pickles of Jewish “appetizing” stores, or, in a different way, those of Korea.
A narrow, badly painted room perched on top of the outdoor Q station on queer-friendly Cortelyou Road, Café Tibet is as dingy as Dubrow’s, the dairy cafeteria on Kings Highway whose food was always much worse than Ratner’s. The room does have its charms – tiny masks of dogs, cows, demons, and horses by every table, Buddhist fabric hangings with haunting images of faceless eyes, framed quotations from the Dalai Lama that say things like “Develop the heart/ Too much energy in your country is spent developing the mind instead of the heart/Develop the heart.” But Café Tibet also has some visible dirt – a little bit on the green-painted walls, which symbolize balance and harmony in Tibetan Buddhism, and some, sadly, in the bathroom, where the side of the white wastebasket and the bottom of a sink fixture were filthy. (The toilet and the sink appear clean.) The only reason I would recommend the place anyway is that the food is that good.
For the record, Café Tibet has an A rating from the health department. Take heart in that, and in the fact that the restaurant is so popular that ingredients turn over daily. I wasn’t expecting the “la-phing, a popular street snack, extracted from mung beans, drizzled with soy sauce, vinegar, garlic with Tibetan hot sauce” ($3.99) to be a cold, quivering pile of savory jello cubes made from mung beans, with a mouth-tingling chili sauce. It was one of the weirdest and most delicious appetizers I’ve had in quite a while.
The Tibetan diet is full of meat, milk, and carbs because of the country’s difficult terrain. Little else is available in the highest areas but yak products and barley, and the diet also helps keep Tibetans going in the low-oxygen, often very cold environment. Butter tea, classically made with black tea mixed with salt and butter from a dri (a female yak), is the national drink. Friends succeeded in warning me off the butter tea at Café Tibet on my initial visits (“Really, really nasty,” cautioned one who’d had the drink elsewhere), but they proved misguided. When I finally had one ($1.50), it tasted nurturing and good, like a sauce or gravy. True, I couldn’t stand to drink more than a couple of sips because of the richness, but I dunked my steamed bread (tingmo) in it, alternating it with dunks in the hot sauce and a fruity soy sauce, for a very satisfying experience.
All of the food I had at Café Tibet tasted nurturing, but I need to focus on that tingmo, which you should choose instead of the perfectly fine rice as your free accompaniment to entrées (or on its own for $1.50). Soft and springy, like lumps of Play-Doh, the big balls of white tingmo (made from yeasted wheat flour) tasted elemental and a little sweet, the way I always imagined manna tasting as a child. The floppy texture made the tingmo fun to eat. It tasted heavenly dipped over and over in the yellow hot sauce, which charmingly comes in plastic mustard squirt bottles and is made from tomatoes, chilies, onion, and perhaps celery. Dipped in butter tea, or in the restaurant’s lovely, sweetish, and very fresh vegetable curry ($8.99), tingmo also reminded me of kreplach, or the very lightest matzoh balls. As a lesbian, I’ve had scant experience with testicles, but tingmo’s happy, spongy texture made me think they might have a similar feel.
But the dumplings are even finer. The momo are available in veggie, chicken or beef varieties (or combo of all three), but get the beef if your personal guidelines allow it. The inside is spicy with ginger and Sichuan peppercorns, which Tibetans prefer call emma. The buttery outside, dipped in burning hot sauce, is what you want in your mouth in a blizzard.
Café Tibet, 1510 Cortelyou Road, Brooklyn, between East 15th and East 16th Streets (no website, 718-941-2725). Open daily except for Tibetan holidays, noon – 10:30 PM. Many items are suitable for vegetarians or vegans, and the chef is happy to accommodate requests to remove meat or dairy or to change the spice level. Cash only, BYOB (the owners also own a grocery next door, where many international beers and an ATM are available). No reservations; be prepared to wait on weekend evenings. No wheelchair access except in warmer months, when outdoor seating with an interesting view of the subway below can accommodate wheelchairs; the restroom is not accessible.
Originally published in Gay City News, February 17, 2016.