"Tashi delek," D'Arcy formally greeted the ravishing, long-braided woman who ushered us to a table. "Tashi delek!" responded the delighted Tsering Wang Mo, who was not only the restaurant's co-owner, but also the singer you hear on tape when you eat at Lhasa Moon, softly accompanying your Tibetan dinner with arresting Tibetan music.
Our first visit fell on the first evening of Losar, the Tibetan New Year. My old bud Martha suggested it, mentioning that her friend D'Arcy had recently returned from several months' volunteer work in the Tibetan refugee community at Dharmsala, in northern India. I insisted that Martha bring D'Arcy along, at gunpoint if necessary. Sure, I've eaten momos, too, as all good trekkers do in downtown Katmandu. Just across the Himalayas, Tibet furnishes a steady trickle of exiles slipping through the 19,000-foot passes, and Nepal's Sherpas are also of Tibetan stock.
The two groups combine to bring a welcome Tibetan admixture to the local Nepalese fare, including momos, Tibet's version of potstickers. (Subsequently I've even tried to make them at home, stuffing gyoza wrappers with bison as a substitute for minced water buffalo or yak.) Still, these samples instilled mere interest rather than real knowledge of the cuisine, and I was delighted to have someone with a deeper experience join us at Lhasa Moon.
Lhasa Moon is the only Tibetan restaurant in Northern California and possibly in the United States. It's received great reviews in the dailies, but days after the most recent rave (in February) the restaurant changed ownership. Not having eaten there before, I can't say whether the food has changed, too.
As we drove down Lombard its neon sign called to us (the restaurant's at Scott) and we parked in a cheap pay-lot on the corner. In the doorway D'Arcy pointed out the wind chimes (small and green, in this instance) that Tibetan restaurants traditionally hang over their doors. Inside, we found a handsome midsize room with photos of Lhasa on the walls and wooden columns topped with Tibetan carvings. Despite an abundance of fabric (carpeting, tablecloths, leatherette banquettes) we were engulfed in the din of a dozen-odd Americans loudly lauding Losar or something. (Our second visit saw a similar banquet. A later phone call aurally revealed yet another. But if you're gravely noise-intolerant you can always phone in and take out, making this your Deli Lama.)
Tsering's partner, "Jim" (his Tibetan name runs much longer), took our orders, his gentle, cultured voice engaging Martha in an Asian version of "Arkansas Traveler."
She asked, "Will ordering the rice wine make me happy?"
"Yes -- at first," he answered.
"As to the food -- what does the chef like?"
"Well, what dishes does he like to cook?"
"Do you want meat, vegetables ...?"
"He doesn't like vegetables." (Tibet's religion is Buddhism and the devout eat no meat; the menu includes eight vegetarian entrees.)
The fresh rice wine (from Takara Company in Berkeley) bore no resemblance to sake or Shaoxing, and made us happy indeed: boozy, foamy, and sweet-tart like lemonade, it was dangerously palatable. D'Arcy opted for bocha, creamy churned Tibetan tea with a pinch of salt. We all liked it surprisingly well, and Martha waxed rhapsodic: "It tastes like me, inside." (And she was only on her first rice wine.) There are other tea variations, three good beers, and two well-chosen California wines at minimal markup. With our drinks we gnawed on a thick, chapatilike flatbread called bhaley.
Of our appetizers, lephing ($4.50; pronounced with a hard "p" and an exhaled "h" -- "lep'hing") proved to be a mung bean gelatin mold that even Cosby wouldn't endorse. Despite a shower of soy, vinegar, garlic, and chives, the quivering cube was the quintessence of Sartre's "Bean and Nothingness." But we loved phing alla ($5), with its bean threads, shiitakes, and chopped vegetables wrapped in a "Tibetan crepe" (really a paper-thin bread). This fine mix of flavors and soft/chompy textures came with a clean-flavored spicy green dipping sauce, which seemed to be nothing more than chiles pureed in water. Then there were the seven little momos ($8), their juicy fillings securely wrapped in strong, kreplachlike noodle dough. Even indifferently made by Sherpas on the Nepalese side of the Himalayas, momos have to be the best food in the high country. At Lhasa Moon, they reach new heights. The densely packed minced beef dumplings are flavored with basil; the chicken version includes chives, and the vegetable ones are spiked with mint. They come with a hillock of lemon-dressed cabbage and a fervid fresh red-chile dipping sauce. The fillings of the appealing carnivorous varieties taste something like won tons or siu mai. The sensational veg version, with forest-green stuffing, tastes like nothing you've had before.
Entrees? We had several. Lhabu dhikrul ($9.50) was a country lamb stew with daikon radish and spinach leaves in a thin, brothy sauce. The soft lamb was pleasantly muttonish in flavor, the daikon savory. With this came tingmo, a puffy, garlic-laced steamed bread. "I can't handle it, I had it three times a day for two months," said D'Arcy. Well, I want it for breakfast twice a week for three months. Phingsha ($9.75; can you say "phingsha?") consisted of beef slices sauteed to the toughness of old yak, with succulent, grainy bean threads and a kicky, sweetish red sauce spiked by a Tibetan peppercorn called Emma, more elusive and penetrating than Jane Austen's heroine. Kongpo shaptak ($9) also had yak-hard sliced beef, in a fascinating, creamy-textured spicy red sauce with Parmesan cheese (yak cheese being unavailable). A sublime vegetarian thukpa ngopa ($9.50; now you've mastered "ph," try "th" and a throaty "k" -- "t'hugkpa") featured delicate-flavored baked thin egg noodles in an ethereal sauce, topped with lightly cooked snow peas, bok choy, shiitake, greens, and chives, so balanced and harmonious that Martha said, "This is like Zen monastery cooking." Neither of us hangs out in Zen monasteries, but that sounded right.
Alackaday, the kitchen was fresh out of the sugared roasted barley, cream, and cheese dessert! D'Arcy said it sounded like tsampa, Tibet's infamous staple. "It's roasted barley you roll into pills and mix with your bocha," she said. "It comes together with the consistency of cookie dough. It's sweet, from the tea, and really not bad." She's the first Westerner I've ever heard praise tsampa; Sir Edmund Hillary sure didn't. We had the other dessert, ginger ice cream ($3), which was cardamom-tinged and velvety like India's ice-milk kulfi, a sublime refresher.
When TJ and I returned near the end of Losar, our waitress was new and seemed flustery, but got our order right and delivered the courses almost too swiftly. We opted for the "dinner menu": Adding $5 to the main course brings salad, choice of soup, and choice of bread.
We started with an OK appetizer of jhasha khatsa ($4.50), aka Tibetan McNuggets. Cubes of juicy chicken thigh, redolent of a slightly spicy, barely sweet marinade, were deep-fried unbattered and served with green chile dip. The two soups on the menu (each $3.50) are both intriguing. Ashom thang has a rich reddish broth thick with corn kernels and tofu chunks. It carries echoes of both Nepal's barley-laden "Sherpa stew" and of Mexican soups, its earthy seasonings including peeled green pepper slices and what I think was a waft of cumin. Churul has snakelets of minced beef at the bottom of a bowl of chive-scattered, Parmesan-enriched broth -- thin and creamy, powerful-tasting, but not fatally filling. What Lhasa Moon calls a "Himalayan salad" ($4) consisted of canned kidneys and garbanzos sparsely coated in a mild lemon dressing, with crunchy freshness lent by diced carrot, daikon, onions, and tomatoes. TJ described it as "three bean salad minus one," and, after claiming he hates bean salads, joined the Clean Plate Club.
Luksha shamdeh ($10.50) induced a deep sense of well-being, with tender lamb and small firm chunks of new potatoes in a mild, simply spiced yogurt curry sauce perfumed with cinnamon. On the previous visit Martha had speculated about how the potato had made its way from its Andean homeland to become a staple in Tibet (which was long closed to outsiders). We finally decided that the flying-saucer aliens who inspired the Nazca Lines had picked up a Peruvian with potatoes in his poncho, then dropped him off ("Nazca, we have a problem") at the wrong mountains.
Jhasha Himalaya ($8.50) had the same marinated chicken as the McNuggets, this time in a fiery curry with tomatoes, green peppers, and sauteed onions, some of which were crisply caramelized, lending a spun-sugar undertone. The sauce was by no means "too spicy," but even buffered by rice it set me to grabbing chunks of loko momo, a bottom-fried igloo-shaped steamed bread, dryer and tougher than tingmo. Thara ($2.50; "yogurt shake") helped, too, although it wasn't to my taste. While India's similar lassi "shake" comes in either salty or sweet versions, thara is tart, its citrus flavor re-emphasizing yogurt's chalky acidity.
On the way home, we were still intoxicated by the lamb curry. Although the dishes had been inconsistent, we'd been truly warmed by the food, including some dishes that we didn't instantly take to but savored in retrospect. Lhasa Moon is unique, but it clearly also offers a superior version of Tibetan cuisine. "You know Utse Restaurant in the Thamel?" I asked D'Arcy during the first dinner, referring to a seedy eatery in downtown Katmandu. She nodded emphatically. "This seems more elegant, not peasant food. Is it from a higher social class?" I asked. "Aristocratic," she confirmed. So you will not eat like this in downtown Katmandu, and probably not even in Dharmsala. You might encounter similar refinement if you sup with the Dalai Lama himself -- but then you'd miss out on the lamb curry.