"Some people are addicted to it!" says Tibet Kitchen owner Jigme Topgyal, referring to an order of lephing, a mung-bean cake flavored with soy vinegar, garlic, powdered chili and chives.
"Cake" doesn't adequately describe the dish, a flan-shaped disc of grayish, translucent jelly, quavering in a bath of soy sauce, with outlines of a few chives suspended inside. Topgyal says local Tibetans come to dine at Tibet Kitchen and order nothing but multiple platters of lephing. "One girl asks for a double helping of spiciness!" he says.
Ah, the mysteries of Tibetan cuisine. American travelers to the Rooftop of the World may complain about desiccated yak jerky and greasy buttered tea, but emigrants at two new restaurants are translating the delicacies of their homeland for Portland diners. Lungta opened in August on Northeast Sandy Boulevard (on the site once occupied by Chinese greasy spoon Kwan Ying's Kitchen--a wry, if tiny, victory for Tibet), while Tibet Kitchen is a newcomer to Northwest 21st Avenue's restaurant row. Both restaurants serve traditional fare, stacking their menus with reliable (and recognizable) dishes while adding a few more adventurous options for authenticity.
Overall, Tibetan cuisine is aimed toward a mild palate. Dishes are likely to be seasoned with salt, garlic and onion--and likely to lack the assertive spiciness of Szechuan Chinese food--while the cuisine's curries are a far cry from the fiery sauces of India and Burma. In Tibet's pasture lands, traditional meals emphasize meat and dairy dishes--mutton, yak and beef, paired with milk, yogurt and cheese. In the farming country, popular dishes are composed of floury noodles, pork and potatoes.
Both of Portland's Tibetan restaurants note on their menus that no preservatives, artificial ingredients or additives are used in the food. The range of spices is extended with the borrowed influences of neighboring nations--you'll find cinnamon and cardamom in Tibet Kitchen's chicken curry, or lhasa shamdeh, and a small pot of Sriracha-style red chili paste sits on the tables at both restaurants to augment the flavors.
Tibet Kitchen's menu has familiar categories: appetizers, soups, salads, noodle and rice dishes, curries. Appetizers range from a spicy jhasha khatsa, marinated chicken pieces in a piquant curry sauce ($4.50), to Kathmandu Spuds, a hearty platter of roasted potatoes rolled in ground-roasted sesame seeds, red chili and minced cilantro ($3.50). Both are pleasantly spicy (say, 2 on a scale of 1 to 10) and filling.
The lephing ($2.75) seems almost flavorless, but it's so generously doused in tangy soy vinegar and chili that it goes down easily, though the clammy-eyeball texture does take some getting used to. Lungta also serves lephing and jhasha khatsa, as well as shaptak, a similar dish with beef ($5). Lungta's dali, a savory lentil soup ($3) is a smooth-textured, wonderfully warming broth that seems a distant cousin to Indian lentil dal.
Both restaurants serve momo, the Tibetan dish most likely to take off as a new American snack trend. A dough dumpling filled with vegetables, cheese, seasoned chopped meat or tofu, these Tibetan-style pot stickers make satisfying finger food. Those delving into the "Pasta Dishes from the High Plateau" section of Lungta's menu--and how could you not?--will also find dumplings floating like won ton in the beef-and-chicken rhu-chotse soup ($6.25).
You'll find several pan-cooked noodle and rice dishes at both restaurants, but these platters of starchy pasta and sautéed vegetables (peas, onion, carrot) taste so similar to substandard Chinese food that you're better off sticking to the meat dishes and curries.
Tibet Kitchen's khajey curry, a vegetarian stew of tofu, potatoes, snow peas and herbs ($8.25), is simply prepared--a tomato-and-onion base with chili spices--but perfect for dousing torn chunks of tingmo. Skip the rice in favor of this regional specialty, which is flatbread that's been balled up, spirally sliced to resemble a cinnamon roll, then steamed. It's light, yeasty in flavor, spongy and chewy in texture, and impeccably designed to absorb the spicy sauces and stews.
Desserts are simple, and often fashioned from the same ingredients as the savory dishes. Tibet Kitchen's chumi is a sticky rice pudding flavored with brown sugar, dates and raisins ($3.50), while Lungta's bhatsa mahku is a plate of sweetened noodles rolled in roasted barley, brown sugar, butter and cheese. Both have a pleasant sweetness and the kind of stick-to-your-ribs simplicity you'd expect from a cold, high-altitude climate, but their mildness might not satiate the American sweet tooth.
The chai at both restaurants, on the other hand, is delicious--piping hot, creamy and elegantly spiced. American versions of this Indian sweet tea often bombard it with too much cardamom and ginger--here Tibetan delicacy seems the perfect light touch.
4644 NE Sandy Blvd., 287-1171
11:30 am-2:30 pm and 5:30 pm-9:30 pm Monday-Saturday.
103 NW 21st Ave., (971) 244-0805
11 am-3 pm and 5-9 pm Tuesday-Thursday, 11 am-3 pm and 5-10 pm Friday-Sunday.
Hardcore enthusiasts can rejoice: You can order bocha, salted-and-buttered tea, at Lungta ($1.50), or yak curry at Tibet Kitchen ($15.95).
Lungta is owned by Yangchen Lhamo and her husband, Tsering Namgyal, while Tibet Kitchen is owned by Jigme Topgyal.