There's a lot of good fortune involved in the origin story of Zhego, a passionately authentic Bhutanese restaurant that opened at the beginning of the year in Woodside, Queens.
Co-owners Tobden Jamphel, the chef, and Sonan Tshering Singye, who runs the front of the house, were great friends growing up in Bhutan, a bicycle-loving Himalayan country in South Asia bordered on either side by China and India.
But after high school, the pair lost touch, as people do—until they bumped into each other a few years ago at a basketball tournament in Queens. Neither one had known that the other had moved to New York City. "It was totally out of the blue," Singye told Hell Gate of their reunion.
At the time, Jamphel, who learned to cook by feeding his younger sisters and brother ("My job was to cook for them because my parents were always away," he said), was selling meals to Woodside locals out of his apartment, through a business called Laya; Singye joined the operation.
The crucial third piece fell into place when they randomly met Tenzin Norb, who happened to be sitting on a five-year lease for a storefront on 61st Street, about two blocks from the 7 train, and didn't know what to do with the space.
The answer, fortunately for the rest of us because it's awesome, turned out to be Zhego, a rare NYC restaurant focusing exclusively on Bhutanese food. The three "brothers from other mothers," as Singye refers to the trio, opened the restaurant in January.
"I think this is the second Bhutanese restaurant currently operating," said Singye. "But we officially proclaim that this the first authentic Bhutanese restaurant, because of the red rice, the dried red chile, the dried white chile, and the Sichuan pepper, all of which we import directly from Bhutan."
That's a contention we're in no position to challenge, but I can say that Zhego has a bunch of really amazing dishes that I've never eaten before.
There's the ema datsi, for example, "the national dish of Bhutan" that's literally just a pile of fiery green chilis with a mixture of American and feta cheeses melted all over it. It is so, so good, either wolfed down straight or dumped over the big mound of chewy red rice that comes with your meal.
Another cheesy delight is the shakam shukam datsi, a thick stew packed with funky chunks of air-dried beef (not quite jerky texture, but close) and kicky dried white chilis. There's also a version of this dish with air-dried pork. Red chilis, also dried and quite spicy, make a welcome appearance in Jamphel's excellent goep paa, paired with generous hunks of tender beef tripe and numbing Sichuan peppercorn.
Half the menu at Zhego is vegetarian, including some cheese and cabbage momo (which we're definitely getting next time), Bhutanese fried rice, and both of its noodle dishes. In the latter category, we loved the jangbuli, a deeply satisfying mess of hand-pulled beauties stir-fried in ginger and that Sichuan pepper.
For more meaty options, there are pork ribs, a stir-fried pork belly dish called phaksha bayzum, and a chicken stew known as jashu maru. Whatever you get, though, also get a cup of warm butter tea, which is somehow refreshing despite being salty as hell.
There's only room for about a dozen people here, on benches that double as storage space, beneath the Instagrammable (complete with hashtag) neon sign. And Woodside's Bhutanese community has definitely discovered the place, so don't be surprised if you have to wait for a table during prime dinner hours.
"Most of the customers feel like, 'Wow, I miss my mom,' when they eat here," said Singye. "We're overwhelmed with happiness by that response."
Zhego is located at 38-4 61st Street, between 38th and 39th Avenues, and is open every day except Tuesday from about 12:00 noon to about 10:00 or 10:30 p.m. Note that the restaurant is closed this week until Thursday, February 24, for Losar, the Tibetan New Year. (917-892-1041)