For the longest time, my friend Simrit had been telling me about Thakali Kitchen, a Nepalese & Tibetan restaurant in Jackson Heights. I’ve had limited experience with Tibetan food; once in Vegas at Himalayan Cuisine for flavorful lamb momos (dumplings), and once on Houston Street at a tiny restaurant for bland watered down curry. The former was good, the latter, not so much. But since my Vegas memory was more recent, I happily made my way to Jackson Heights from Times Square, and got there only one hour late. (Thank you E train for failing so miserably and so consistently every weekend!)
Fortunately though, I didn’t have to suffer the wrath of Simrit since my other dining companions, Anna and Catalin, were late as well. (Seriously, thank you MTA for reliably sucking so hard across every single line.) Once I caught my breath from running three blocks from the train station, I managed to look over the menu and order a few dishes that piqued my interest. However, since Simrit and Anna were more familiar with Tibetan/Nepalese food, I let them order most of the food. I know when to take a backseat at a restaurant.
We ordered two kinds of momos, chicken ($7.50) and vegetable ($6.50). Both were steamed and arrived in metal steaming baskets. The chicken came with a bowl of chicken broth and the vegetables came with a trio of spicy chutneys: one tomato based, one pepper based, and one cilantro based. Of course we discovered the soup amid the many dishes after we finished the momos, so at our table, all momos were eaten with sauce. Major Nepalese social gaffe? Eh, who knows. Rules are made to be broken anyway.
The chicken momos were juicy, but only had the slightest whisper of cumin. The momos I had in Vegas were more intense with pronounced Indian notes, but these were more delicate. They needed a bit more oomph, which is where the three chutneys came into play. Dressed in tomato chutney, the momos were delicious.
The Titte Karela Fry ($6.50), sautéed bitter melon garnished with fresh chopped tomatoes and red onion, was the most visually appealing. The bitter melon, karela, used at Thakali is the Indian variety which is more spikey and darker in color. Simply fried in oil with a little salt, the karela tasted similar to squash with a bitter aftertaste. The edible karela seeds were also sprinkled throughout the plate, and the crunchy pods reminded me of toasted pumpkin seeds. It was a simple plate that made up in textures what it lacked in strong flavors.
The Aloo Chilly ($3.95) — sautéed potatoes with chili, green peppers, and onions — reminded me of home fries with a spicy Indian twist. I wouldn’t mind waking up to a plate of these with an egg, sunny-side up, and a side of bacon. And while we’re pretending, throw in a bloody mary also.
Rayo Saag ($6.95), mustard greens, similar to the bitter melon, was simply sautéed. It wasn’t mind-boggling, but it I liked the mild mustard taste and the semi-crunchy fibrous texture.
My favorite dish of the day was a plate of fried gamy goodness with a peppery kick called Mutton Fry ($7.95), stir-fried goat. The edges were crispy, yet dry to the touch, and succulent to the bite. Catalin found it difficult to eat, but I prefer bone-in meat. It always gives the meat a heartier flavor.
We also ordered a Dal ($1.75) and a Vegetable Curry ($2.95), but both were average and better versions can be found at most Indian restaurants.
When we were thoroughly full, Simrit asked all of us if we had afternoon plans, to which I replied, “Yes, to eat jalebis.” So after our lovely lunch, the four of us moved on to Maharaja a block down where Simrit treated me to a pound of jalebis to take home (I have very good friends), and treated the group to an assortment of Indian sweets which we nibbled on with some coffee and conversation back at Simrit’s apartment. My favorite was a dark amber number covered with almond slivers that tasted like caramelized brown sugar. As is the case when something is really good, no one knew the name of the particular sweet, but I’ll definitely be getting a little box full of them on my next visit. As for the jalebis, I took them to my parent’s house, which everyone, especially my father, appreciated. Sticky and sweet, the jalebis at Maharaja taste similar to the ones at Curry in a Hurry, but with a slight tang. I can’t say it tasted better or worse, just different. I’m an equal opportunity jalebi lover; orange, yellow, white, or sour, they all taste good to me.
For those that live in Manhattan, Jackson Heights may be a hassle to get to, especially on the weekends, but places like Thakali and Maharaja take the edge off the painful commute. And if you get an order of jalebis to go, the ride back isn’t so bad either.
73-10 37th Avenue (betw 73rd & 74th St)
Jackson Heights, NY 11372 (map)