Tibet Kitchen's pan-Asian dishes hit the same note
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?"
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.
Though Tibet Kitchen is a totally serviceable pan-Asian restaurant, if in need of a little sprucing up, it's "pan-Asian" not by offering traditional dishes that truly represent different regions of the continent, but rather by affixing the words Thai, Chinese, Indian, or Vietnamese to a rice, noodle, or curry dish that really could be called almost anything else and smell just as sweet, as it were. So while the dishes at Tibet Kitchen all managed to deliver notes of heat, garlic, and a little umami in their generously portioned dishes, they tended to hit the same note. Tibet Kitchen may not be a place you're going to put on a bucket list, but if you find yourself hungry (or in need of a cheap, stiff cocktail) somewhere between Eat Street and Loring Park, the wafting incense, free butter tea, and promise of shiny-skinned momo with spicy and cool slaw should draw you right to Tibet Kitchen. To each their own Romeo, right?
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