Queens Boulevard, a major thoroughfare that cuts through the heart of the borough, accommodates many lanes of automobiles traveling to and from Manhattan. Some eateries that flank it seem geared for auto traffic, too: One stretch of roadway, in Elmhurst, sports a classic diner, an Argentine steakhouse and a fast-food restaurant marked by golden arches.
Driving by, or even walking by, we might easily miss a corner business that looks out on those other eateries. From outside, on a sunny day, the storefront seems more like a mirror than a window; modest signage marks the doors. Opening them, we enter Arya Cafe and leave behind the glare of the sun and the honking hustle and bustle of passing cars, trucks and buses for the murmur of conversation, mostly in Tibetan.
Widely spaced tables and chairs, many of them low-slung, occupy the front of the room, to our left. Ahead, along a wall, is a display of refreshments – some with familiar brand names, others whose contents require decipherment – and a counter where we can order food and drink. At the back, an eye-catching display of home goods, apparel, gemstones, coral and jewelry – from Nepal, Taiwan and India as well as Tibet – represents a business called Tibetan Arts Home.
Shazy Khan, the manager and public face of both businesses, tells us that the cafe opened in June 2020, just a few months into the pandemic. It’s “a little bit away, but not too much away,” she explains, from Himalayan Heights, that part of neighboring Jackson Heights crowded with some three dozen restaurants, food trucks and street carts representing Tibet, Nepal and even Bhutan. Tibetan Home Arts already operated a small shop closer to that neighborhood, she adds, and soon it made sense to consolidate the two businesses under one large roof.
“We welcome anybody of any race and ethnicity,” Shazy continues. Most of Arya’s customers are Tibetan Buddhist, she adds, although Shazy (like us) is neither – she’s Muslim, and was born in the Caribbean nation of Guyana. Nor does she speak Tibetan. Although English does work passably well for communicating with her small staff and customers, an additional lingua franca – Shazy mentions the proximity of Tibet to northern India, and the Indian heritage of Guyana – is Hindi.
Many Tibetans left their homeland beginning in the 1950s, Shazy observes – it was annexed by China early in the decade, and is under even tighter Chinese control today – and often they can’t readily return. Businesspeople have an easier time of it, she continues, adding that many “come to trade” at the cafe.
We weren’t privy to any big deals. However, we did watch one table of men set aside their drinks, each in turn, to weigh the merits of necklaces made from red coral, whose deep color is considered auspicious in Tibetan Buddhism. In part due to restrictions intended to curb overharvesting, red coral is increasingly rare.
On another of our visits, that same table was occupied by four young teens who sipped bubble teas and smoothies, thumbed their mobile phones and chatted in English. At another table just out of easy listening range, their mothers (we believe) ordered their own tall drinks and conversed in Tibetan – although we also observed occasional cross-talk between generations, and between languages.
As at many cafes that offer Wi-Fi, “some people settle in all day,” Shazy tells us, to work, to study or just to be out of the house. We’ve never stayed nearly that long, but we have dropped in, at various times of day, for refreshments.
For breakfast, we’ve tucked away a serving of spicy potatoes with Amdo bread, a flat, round, chewy loaf named for a region in northeastern Tibet. Our meal was not as compact as a breakfast sandwich from that fast-food chain across the street, but rather than grab and go, we were content to linger for a short while.
At lunch, we watched more than once as Jampa Tsering, the counterman, carefully carried what seemed to be weighty bowls to many customers. This proved to be beef noodle soup. Ours was brimming with plenty of meat, ample noodles and, to our surprise and delight, lots of leafy greens.
Would we also like hot sauce, Jampa asked? We gave the nod, and shortly he returned with two lidded containers. The chunkier of the two, a sprightly red, is “more sour,” he told us; the other, an ominous maroon, is “more spicy.” On another afternoon, when we split an order of dumplinglike beef momo with our buddies, we agreed that the spicy sauce, in small doses, was more to our taste.
We never have met the owners of Arya, Khawa Llamo and Jampa Doonden, a youngish married couple from Tibet, except indirectly, through dessert. For the afternoon on which we’d arranged to sit down and talk, Shazy tells us, Khawa had specially prepared her tsampa dry cheesecake. We ordered the deluxe version – dressed in fresh fruit, whipped cream and a drizzle of chocolate syrup – and took Shazy’s advice in pairing it with ginger lemon honey tea.
The cake itself, molded in the shape of a heart that was hard to see under all the toppings, takes its color from tsampa, a Himalayan staple made from ground roasted barley flour. And although “dry cheesecake” sounds like a critique, the name refers to the Tibetan dried cheese used in its preparation. As served, the cake was more crumbly than creamy, but we’d never call it dry.
That Tibetan cheese, it turns out, was one of the foodstuffs we couldn’t quickly identify in the display near the front door. We’d been distracted by the many brand-name sweets and snacks – like the chilled candy bars, two shelves down from the cheese. Those are mainly for younger kids, Shazy tells us, whose parents might not be able to placate them with traditional Tibetan food.
For our part, we’ll stick with beef noodle soup and tsampa dry cheesecake; the candy will have to find another taker.
Published on May 16, 2023