Momos – and French Toast – in Woodside

  • Dawa Bhuti and her father, Ngodup Gyaltsen, standing outside their restaurant in Woodside. (All photos by Tsering D. Gurung for Voices of NY)
It was the sight of her father struggling up and down flights of subway stairs carrying dozens of lunch boxes on his back that first made Dawa Bhuti want to open a restaurant.

Bhuti’s father, Ngodup Gyaltsen, 62, a Tibetan immigrant from Nepal, had been running a lunch box service from his home in Jackson Heights, Queens, for over two years.

His main clients were fellow Tibetans who worked at farmers’ markets across Manhattan. Gyaltsen was the chef, manager and delivery man.

“I felt that it was too much work for a 60-year-old to be doing,” said Bhuti, 34, the eldest of Gyaltsen’s three daughters. She also has an older brother. “And I knew that he had always wanted to open a restaurant. So, I said, ‘Now let’s open one.’”

Despite feeling less than ready, Bhuti got together with her uncle and business partner, Lobsang Tenzin, 40, and leased a storefront – which previously housed Lety’s Café – in Woodside, Queens, in August 2015. They continued to operate it as Lety’s for a few months, closed for renovations, then opened as Dawa’s in August of 2016.

What sets it apart from other Tibetan-run restaurants – of which there are at least a dozen in Queens – is its dual menu, designed by Bhuti, who took on the task of chef at the new restaurant, which can seat no more than 30 people at a time.

On one side of the menu, patrons may peruse the American offerings: a combination of popular breakfast and brunch options such as pancakes, French toast, baked eggs and more exotic-sounding dishes, such as herb-poached wild cod and butternut squash ravioli, all Bhuti’s creations.

On the other side of the menu “ethnic plates” are listed; a variety of favorites from Tibetan and Himalayan cuisine, including Gyaltsen’s famous momos (Tibetan dumplings) and the not-so-familiar gyuma (blood sausages).

The menu changes depending upon the season and the mood of the chef.

Bhuti, a culinary school graduate of Career Academy in Manhattan, is a firm believer in the farm-to-table concept and today obtains most of her produce from two farms upstate: Blooming Hill Farm and Finger Lakes Farm. Bhuti, who said her previous stints at Mercer Kitchen, Rouge Tomate and Reynard helped shape her food philosophy, can also be seen shopping for fresh produce at farmers’ markets on weekends.

The decision to keep the two cuisines separate and not force them into a bad marriage has paid off. Within months of opening, Dawa’s received positive reviews in The New York Times, The Village Voice and DNAinfo. The Voice included in it its list of the best NYC restaurants of 2016.

“I feel proud that our restaurant can represent Himalayan cuisine,” said Bhuti.

The positive reviews have helped bring in crowds and so have social media, mainly Instagram, which Bhuti uses regularly to post photos of new dishes.

She is happy to note that her patrons are wide-ranging and reflect the cultural diversity of New York City.

“When I first chose this location, my father was worried,” Bhuti said. “He felt like Jackson Heights would be a safer option, given the number of Tibetans living there.”

But Bhuti disagreed.

She thought leasing a large space in Woodside made better business sense than renting a tiny space in Jackson Heights at twice the price. She was also confident that their food would speak to people of all ethnicities.

And she was right.

The majority of Dawa’s customers are non-Tibetans; residents of the neighborhood who drop by for the $1 coffee and patrons from Manhattan who come to satiate their craving for both American and Tibetan cuisine.

“From the very beginning our goal was to attract a diverse clientele,” said Lobsang Tenzin. “We didn’t want to be just another Tibetan restaurant.”

Tenzin, who moved to the U.S. over a decade ago, had experience running small businesses and was tasked with handling the day-to-day operations. But no job is off limits for the co-owner.

“I do a little bit of everything,” said Tenzin. “Sometimes it’s shopping, dealing with finances, other times it’s working in the kitchen, cooking and even washing dishes.”

But perhaps his most important role has been playing the mediator between the father and daughter.

“Without him, we would never have been able to make decisions,” said Bhuti.

As with location, Bhuti and her father disagreed on the décor. While Bhuti wanted to go with a modern, minimalistic look, her father preferred a more traditional style.

Scan the restaurant today and it’s easy to see who won. Strings of lights hang low over rustic furniture. Mason jars filled with all kinds of spices sit prettily in one corner of the kitchen. And food is served in ceramic dishes that Bhuti custom-ordered. The only Tibetan element is paintings of the eight auspicious Buddhist symbols neatly hung along one white wall.

So far Dawa’s is open only for breakfast, brunch and lunch. But the owners expect to have their liquor license application approved soon, and thereafter plan to introduce a dinner menu. And they may even open in another location.

“We will see what the future holds,” said Bhuti. “I still don’t feel completely settled. I still have a lot more to learn.”

Tsering Gurung is a student in the 2017 class at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

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