The view from Weekender’s doorway is promising only for those comfortable with snooker: The room is dominated by three intimidatingly broad tables devoted to that challenging cue sport. Compared with New York’s typical coin-op bar-pool tables, a snooker table’s balls are smaller, its pockets tighter and successful shots consequently rarer. They certainly were for us.
Crossing to the far side of the counter, we found more action, of a different sort, in a screened-off dining area provisioned by a Bhutanese kitchen. This Woodside establishment is one of the few in all of New York that serves the cuisine of Bhutan, a Himalayan kingdom landlocked between Tibet and India. The food is fortifying and often fiery: In the tiny nation’s most famous dish, chile peppers are used not as a seasoning, but as a vegetable.
Pema (Pay-mah) Gyeltshen, co-owner of Weekender with his cousin Lhendup Zangmo and her husband, Jamyang Tsultrim, was raised in Mongar, in eastern Bhutan. After moving west to Thimphu, the nation’s capital (and largest city, though its population barely tops 100,000), Gyeltshen opened a billiard hall and bar-restaurant – also called Weekender – and ran it from 2001 until he emigrated to the U.S. in 2008. (His sister owns it today.)
For several years in his new country, Gyeltshen followed the Bhutanese mantra – “Work hard, invest a lot” – at such diverse occupations as an attendant at a gas-station donut shop, chauffeur and owner of a small Bhutanese market in neighboring Sunnyside. Ultimately he sold the market to help finance this American incarnation of Weekender.
Gyeltshen invested a lot of sweat equity, too. At one time the premises had housed a Mexican restaurant, but in 2014 they were occupied by a medical diagnostic center and divvied up into many small rooms. We “broke down all the walls,” Gyeltshen says, except for a couple of small outer cubicles, and “built the kitchen from scratch.” Today the kitchen is the domain of a Tibetan-born chef, Norbu Gyeltshen (no relation), who cooks for a pan-Himalayan clientele.
Tibet is much larger and more populous than Bhutan, and many more Tibetans than Bhutanese now make their homes in central Queens, but “our cultures are 80-90 percent the same,” says Pema Gyeltshen. Indeed, Tibetan and Dzongkha, Bhutan’s national language, are mutually intelligible – although Gyeltshen, who notes with pride that “no country has colonized Bhutan,” maintains that Bhutanese can understand Tibetans better than the other way around. For his part, Gyeltshen also speaks a local language from his native land as well as English, Nepali and a little Hindi.
In the tiny nation’s most famous dish, chile peppers are used not as a seasoning, but as a vegetable.
Judging by the dining area, by and large the Bhutanese and Tibetan cuisines are mutually intelligible, too. For many customers, one common bond is red rice, a variety that thrives at high elevation and whose nutty flavor retains its character even when challenged by chile- and garlic-laden stir-fries. (At Weekender, it’s a further sign of the national work ethic: Gyeltshen also operates a shipping business, sending packages back to Bhutan on behalf of expats and importing Bhutanese goods, particularly that rice.)
Ema datse, by contrast, is distinctively Bhutanese. For this national dish, whose name literally means “chile cheese,” sliced chile peppers slathered in a spicy cheese sauce are proffered as the main ingredient. Though accompanied by a generous plate of imported red rice, Weekender’s ema datse itself is fashioned using two domestic ingredients: Italian long hots, apostrophe-shaped peppers of varying temperament, and square slices, deposited one by one to melt in the pot, of American white cheese. The type of farmer’s cheese that’s used in Bhutan has much more tang (or, shall we say, funk), but it’s well-nigh-impossible to source abroad. Easy-to-melt American white cheese is a surprisingly competent – and comforting – stand-in; it unifies the dish and helps distribute the flavors of garlic, onion and especially chile pepper.
Weekender offers other datse dishes, too, featuring potatoes, or mushrooms, or mixed vegetables, or meat. Even in the absence of the long hots, the cheese sauce that covers them is invigorated by small but potent Bhutanese peppers. While we’ve been assured that the food is “hotter back home,” in Bhutan – and although, when at Weekender, we insist, though not always with total success, that we want our food “spicy” – ema datse and its kin deliver an inner chile glow that’s very welcome when we step out of the wintry weather in Woodside. They’re very filling, too.
Even so, we always find it hard to pass up an order of momo; at Weekender, we prefer the variety of these dumplings that’s filled with juicy beef. They’re not quite the size or the heft of snooker balls, but their shape is similar; they arrive at the table in loose formation, as if awaiting the next game. Rack ‘em up!