Hungry City: Tables for Snooker and Bhutanese Food at Weekender Billiard
It’s Saturday night and every snooker table is taken at the Bhutanese pool hall in Woodside, Queens. The players are all men, most with roots in the Land of the Thunder Dragon, the young ones lanky in faded rock tees and track pants, their elders slouching in bomber jackets and bright white kicks. They rack the red balls, watch and wait.
Pema Gyeltshen, from Mongar in eastern Bhutan, opened Weekender Billiard in the fall of 2014 with his cousin Lhendup Zangmo and her husband, Jamyang Tsultrim, a native of Tibet. The name on the awning is printed in English and Tibetan — not Dzongkha, Bhutan’s national language, although they share the same script. (This may be because Tibetan immigrants in Queens outnumber Bhutanese, or because, as Mr. Gyeltshen explained, there is no word for “weekender” in Dzongkha.)
The chef, Norbu Gyeltshen (no relation), was born in Tibet and grew up in Bhutan. Pema Gyeltshen, too, can trace his ancestry to Tibet, centuries back. “We’re all mixed up,” he said. In a corner, portraits of the Dalai Lama and the astonishingly beautiful king and queen of Bhutan, flanked by their countries’ flags, tilt over a huddle of glossy black tables.
Under their gaze, the waiter brings plates of ema datse, the Bhutanese daily meal. This is often described as soup, stew or curry, none of which seem to fit its texture here: fresh green chiles, split and still armed with seeds, under a sheen of mollifyingly mild cheese.
The ingredients might suggest some cross-cultural kinship with Tex-Mex chile con queso. But in ema datse the chiles are dominant, meaty strips meant to be appreciated as both vegetable and firestarter. At Weekender, they are Italian long hots, always a gamble, erratic in heat; some are merely sweet and fleshy, others a silent shriek.
They’re simmered with butter and slices of white American cheese, a surprisingly successful stand-in for traditional Bhutanese farmer cheese made from curds, minus the tang. Other versions of the dish temper the heat with mushrooms, potatoes or hard, nearly fossilized beef, dried in-house for days — delicious, once you revive your animal within and break it with your teeth.
Momos (dumplings) are smaller than some of their Tibetan counterparts in the neighborhood, dainty pleated buns disclosing beef or cabbage and mozzarella. The latter are best eaten at once, before the cheese sets. All come with eze, a hot sauce powered by ema kam, dried red chiles that in Bhutan are laid on rooftops and hung from windows to drink up the sun. One night a woman at the next table pulled a giant Ziploc bag of them out of her purse.
Ema kam is the background thrum in jasha maroo, a soup red-orange like a late stage of sunset, with a lacy veil of fat on the surface and diced chicken and crushed garlic and ginger in its depths. And in kakgur, a soup with hunks of butternut squash broken down but still tasting bright, and cheese half vanished in the broth.
Bathup is the heartiest, a great bowl of soup heavy with hand-torn dough and defiance of winter. The first spoonful is plain-spoken, but stir in the pinch of spice at the center — thingay, Sichuan pepper — and the mouth goes numb.
It would not be a meal without Bhutanese red rice, grown at high elevations in the Paro Valley, earthy and fluffy, with a slight blush. You will want, too, chewy buckwheat noodles doused with hot oil to sear in the flavors of red chile and garlic chives. And Bhutanese black tea, which in its dry state is almost more twigs and bark than leaves. This is boiled for hours, then churned repeatedly with salt and a pat of butter. It tastes deep, like being privy to someone else’s memory.
The kings of Bhutan have always protected it from the rest of the world. The country had no paved roads until 1962, no television or internet until 1999. Tourists were shut out until 1974, then limited in number; to enter the kingdom, you must commit to spending a minimum of $200 to $250 a day, depending on the season.
Or you could come to Weekender, where snooker tables go for $13 an hour, ema datse for $8.99. Outside, the storefront may look closed, its heavy curtains drawn, grates down over the windows. But there’s a glow within, and the dark wooden door swings wide.
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