Tibet Kitchen's pan-Asian dishes hit the same note

Tibetan dishes shine over rest of the menu

Tibet Kitchen's pan-Asian dishes hit the same note
Alma Guzman
The shapta with Tibetan steamed bread is made to eat with your hands. Take the tour.

When Juliet wonders aloud "What's in a name?" in the second act of Shakespeare's famous tragedy, she's already so incapacitated by her love for Romeo, so deep in the throes of her existential and romantic entanglement, that within a matter of a few lines she announces with unwavering conviction that the name of a person or object, whether assigned by family or self-imposed, attached to a man or a flower, is arbitrary. Juliet is the antithesis of the modern-day brand specialist. She muses that calling a rose a rose or a Montague a Montague doesn't shape its perception or identity, nor does it detract from its inherent nature. Well, after several visits to Tibet Kitchen in Stevens Square, the renamed and recently reopened eatery that customers might recognize as the former Gangchen Bar and Restaurant, I can't say I was fully converted to Juliet's school of thought. Though dishes like Thai-style red curry and Vietnamese basil beef had familiar elements and were enjoyable in their own way, they didn't match up to the experience one would expect from their international monikers.

So does titling a dish in a certain way change its inherent goodness or badness? No. But it does cause a diner to expect certain flavor profiles and the presence or absence of certain ingredients. Where Tibet Kitchen really shined, unsurprisingly, was in the handful of Tibetan dishes on the menu. I believe the reasons for this are twofold: 1) In general, Minnesotans (myself included) are less familiar with the cuisine of Tibet and Nepal compared to food from other Asian countries, so expectations are almost nonexistent; and 2) Tibetan food, even in my fairly limited experience, is really, really good. So good, in fact, that I once volunteered to be part of a Tibetan dumpling-making party, sealing hundreds of dumplings over several hours, all because I was promised I could eat the "oops" ones that split open while cooking.

At Tibet Kitchen we requested round after round of rather hit-or-miss appetizers. The sesame chicken wings were served swimming in an overly sweet pool of cornstarch-thickened sauce that made them impossible to get a good grip on. Once we steadied them with a fork, however, we found they had a substantial crunch and good flavor to the wing meat. The cranberry puffers, made of packets of thin fried wonton with mildly curried cream cheese, tart dried cranberries, and sharp raw scallions, were far more interesting and inspired some great ideas for what to do with next year's Thanksgiving leftovers. The Tibetan-style egg rolls were indistinguishable from the kind that come free with your Chinese takeout order if you spend more than $40. Hoping to root out the restaurant's signature dish, we pressed our server: "What's the one thing we can't leave here without trying?" He silently gestured toward the bamboo steamer that was sitting already half-empty on our table. "You already ate it," he told us with a smile. "More tea?"

Alma Guzman

Location Info

Map

Tibet Kitchen

1833 Nicollet Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55403

Category: Restaurant > Pan-Asian

Region: Minneapolis (Downtown)

Details

Appetizers $3-$7; entrees $8-$13

Ah yes, the momos. Momos, sometimes referred to as mamacha (like they do at Namaste Cafe, which produces a wonderful version with ground lamb), are one of the most popular street foods in southern Asia and were indeed the best thing we had at Tibet Kitchen. These simple but flavor-packed, shiny little steamed dumplings are usually filled with a mixture of ground meat and vegetables, but a well-traveled friend of mine told me you can also find "dessert momo," filled with Snickers, Milky Way bars, and other confections, being sold to Westerners in the tourist trap parts of Nepal. They sound like they would be more at home in a Minnesota State Fair booth, but I digress. The dough on Tibet Kitchen's momos leaned a little to the thick side, but the filling was very aromatic.

The addictive and well-balanced house salad was a combination of spicy pickled carrots and cabbage, cut into long, floppy ribbons and coated with chili paste. Two more nice surprises also came from the Tibetan part of the menu. The handmade wide, scalloped-edge thenthuk noodles came in an almost comically large bowl of golden broth with big, flat pieces of chicken and lots of ginger. "It's like pho, if you know pho," our server explained. And then came the shapta, a sort of chewy beef dish you eat with pieces of slightly spongy steamed bread. That description makes one picture injera, the round, pocketed Ethiopian flatbread, and it is a bit similar, but without the fermented flavor that teff flour lends. The main similarity is in how you use it, which is to say that it is both the carbohydrate component of your meal and your utensil. When the steamed bread arrives, it looks like a naked, defrosted cinnamon roll—a pudgy, pale pile that you can't help but poke. Its yielding texture is definitely strange at first, but once you pinch off a piece and use it to pluck the mixture of thin, chewy beef, caramelized onions, and bright scallions from your plate, you'll know you've just started a vicious cycle that won't stop until all the bread has disappeared.

The various Thai and Indian curries were forgettable, save for the fact that they confused our palates. The Thai red curry was the spiciest dish we had (you'll have to request extra if you like things hot) but lacked the rich, mellow qualities that coconut milk usually provides. Indian curry was watery, salty, and deficient in complexity. The Vietnamese basil beef was similar to what you'd make at home with items from your pantry if your family requested something vaguely Asian: canned pineapple, white mushrooms, soy-based sauce, a little something green for freshness. Not bad, but definitely not on a par with the Vietnamese food you can get just down the street from Jasmine Deli.

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9 comments
kitchens kent
kitchens kent

It really an excellent post. It not only make me realize the charmity of words and pictures but also help me to learn a lot. Thank you very much! Looking forward to see more outstanding masterpiece from you in the future. Best wishes.

Sharon Elizabeth
Sharon Elizabeth

I'm from Jersey and have worked in restaurants in NJ and NY for several years.Living in the Twin Cities for over a decade,I notice the bias when it comes to "different" foods.This critic has no clue and insulted Tibet Kitchen with her lack of knowledge of why they serve the various styles of food.I have eaten at Tibet Kitchen,since it was Gangchen,new owner-same chefs.They have no idea what is Pan Asian is.To call the food "strange" is an insult.Go on any given night and you will see Tibetan families eating the Momo,Shapta and the Curries that the chefs grew up eating in India and Tibet.

Shay TaanLah
Shay TaanLah

Timomo and shapta's are the best... Momos are awesome too...

BBQ restaurants
BBQ restaurants

Lots of different varieties available in the Tibet kitchens's pan-Asian,This is the best restaurant with the high quality of food.This restaurant is both veg and non-veg.

Johnny Woodside
Johnny Woodside

i have to admit, i'm a sucker for their vietnamese curry (sans pineapple and kick up the heat), the momos are truly hard to resist, and i can really get down on the oyster wings.

Scott Johnson
Scott Johnson

As a regular customer of tibet kitchen i must say you missed the mark The food here is excellent and by far surpasses almost all the other eat street restaurantsand at half the pricePlus the staff and the owners are so passionate and dedicated to this place you cant help but go back over and over

Guest
Guest

It sounds pretty much the same as Gangchen (which I loved). Is the ownership the same? Did they just change the name?

Tom
Tom

Its my favorite neighborhood joint. They give a variety that is not expected an still do an above par and below budget product. I have not tried the new Tibetan items but I look forward it as I have never been disappointed in their food.

 
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