So: if I told you that there were only fifteen Tibetan restaurants in the entire United States, would you be intrigued? Would that intrigue deepen if I said that one of that select number is in Chicago? Easily accessible by public transportation. How about if I said that it was inexpensive, vegetarian friendly but also offering plenty of carnivore-friendly items as well? Well, listen up, hounds and houndettes, because we are exceedingly fortunate that Chicago has been the home to Tibet Café for seven years now.
I have visited several times recently, just the other day with a friend who goes to Tibet three times a year (he runs a Tibetan art gallery). Now, having elicited a Pavlovian drop or two of salivary expectation, I must dampen your excitement for a moment. I visited Tibet myself re-cently. I know what Tibetan food tastes like in the motherland. And I cannot say that this is haute cuisine. In fact, truth be told, Tibets cuisine is not their gift to the world. (If you want to see some of that, visit the Art Institutes Himalayas show or learn about Tibetan Buddhism or meet the people.) Perhaps the best way of explaining it is to say that one does not go to a Ti-betan restaurant for the food.
Huh? you gasp. Why go to a restaurant if not for the food? Ah to grasp that little conundrum, grasshopper, you must appreciate more than a modicum of the Buddhist philosophy. Suffice to say, one goes for the experience. The food is pleasant and plentiful, the owners and servers au-thentically Tibetan (there are about 300 Tibetans in Chicagoa large group as expatriate Tibetan communities go). The décor is minimal: perhaps a dozen or so tables, many with cushioned benches. Paneled walls sport butter sculptures (a traditional Tibetan art), several objets, includ-ing some attractive silk hangings, and a large portrait of the happily smiling Dalai Lama. One waitress is usually sufficient to handle to room which on my several visits has had anywhere from two to seven tables occupied at one time.
The menu is larger than one would expect. There is a vegetarian section (thirteen entrees) as well as a meat section (sixteen entrees). There are several kinds of momosdumplings that can be either steamed or deep-fried and filled with vegetables or meat. (And yes, Virginia, if you were to taste yak, you would find that it tastes remarkably like beef brisketwithout the season-ing.) There are resemblances to Chinese food (consider the geography) but the seasoning tends to much less adventurous. Indeed, had I but one word to describe Tibetan food as a whole, it might be bland. Which is probably one reason, several dishes are traditionally accompanied by a chili pepper sauce on the side. It also pays to remember the nature of Tibetan topography. The country has an AVERAGE altitude of over 12,000 feet. Food can be quite rich and protein-packed. Spicy is not a good thing. However, notwithstanding the dreaded b word, however, I urge you to visit Tibet Cafe.
Let me mention several specific dishes I have had. Sesha could pass for a Chinese dish: beef or chicken sauteed in butter with broccoli and mushrooms. Lightly seasoned but quite enjoyable. ping tsel begins with bean thread noodles and adds onions, spinach, and carrots. (Potatoes, spin-ach, and cauliflower are frequent guests in Tibetan cooking as are yogurt and tofu.) Then there is sha-bhale: large round pastry disks filled with chopped meat, onions, cumin, ginger, and gar-lic, and then fried. The menu also boasts several steak dishes, a few salads, and even a couple curries. A number of dishes are served with your choice of bread or rice. Desserts are two. Deysee is a puddingish rice dish served with golden raisins and yogurt (!) and the other (bat-samaku), which I have yet to try, is advertised as steamed dough with parmesan cheese (!), brown sugar, and butter.
Should you be so inclinedIve tried it too many times to justify any more misplaced hope that my palate deceives methey do serve bo cha, the infamous butter tea. No, butter tea is NOT made with rancid butter. It is tea churned together with yak milk butter. And yak milk butter has a somewhat different taste than butter made from cows milk. (Actually, a yak cheese is widely available in Tibet which tastes remarkably similar to cheddarwith a unique tang.) I have never managed to accustom myself to the tea, though adepts advise that one should con-sider it a soup and not think of it as tea. It is a bit salty, a bit tea-like, and altogether an un-usual taste sensation. My companion the other day said that it compared favorably with what he has in Tibet. (After all, yak butter is a bit difficult to come by here in the midwest .)
There are two soups and two salads ($2.50 to $2.95); entrées range from $5.50 to $8.95. Desserts are $3.00 and drinks from $1.00 to $2.50 (or you can bring your own--at no charge).
I do not promise you enlightenment at Tibet Café. I do not even promise you a superb dinner. Even if Tibetan turns out not to be your newest culinary love, I dare you not to fall in love with the people who seem to embody a beguiling combination of modesty (not to be confused with shyness) and gregariousness. If you arrive with an open mind and an open heart, I guarantee you a wonderful evening.
3913 N. Sheridan Road
(two blocks south of Irving)
Tel: (773) 281-6666
Sheridan (red line) el stop
(one block to the right after exiting, across the street)
Hours: 5pm-10pm Mon-Fri; 11am-10pm Sat-Sun