The three owners of Zhego, Sonam Tshering Singye, chef Tobden Jamphel, and Tenzin Norbu, opened their narrow Queens storefront in January with one goal in mind: to give New York its first great Bhutanese restaurant. The tiny space has only a handful of tables, and the kitchen is a tight fit for two cooks, but Singye, Jamphel, and Norbu are committed to offering a faithful version of their home country’s cooking. They employ a traditional air-drying technique for pork and beef that gives the meat a firm, almost jerkylike texture and serve only sides of red rice, which is the variety most representative of Bhutan. Cheese and chile peppers, the latter of which are imported from Bhutan, are in almost everything on the menu because, according to Jamphel, the combination is the essence of Bhutanese food (ema datsi, or chiles stewed with a mild cow’s-milk cheese, is Bhutan’s unequivocal national dish). And this is where puta, a serving of buckwheat noodles, comes into play as a way to cut through all the rich, chile-spiked dairy.
As Singye explains, puta hails from the state of Bumthang (known to residents as “the Switzerland of Bhutan” for its lush green mountains), where buckwheat is a vital crop and the sturdy, toasty noodles are considered a delicacy. In Woodside, Jamphel’s version of puta hews to tradition, combining stir-fried egg, chives, and a light touch of onion with a bit of tingly Sichuan peppercorn. It’s a preparation that isn’t seen very often in this city — where there is only a handful of Bhutanese restaurants, all centered on Jackson Heights and Woodside — but it nevertheless makes the case for the global appeal of slippery, spicy noodles.
Zhego was born at a game of pickup basketball. Singye and Jamphel had been friends in Bhutan before moving to New York independently and later reconnecting. They also knew the third owner, Norbu, from a bar he ran in Bhutan called Rumors. Last year, all three found themselves playing in a basketball tournament organized by the local Bhutanese community. At the time, Norbu had a lease he was looking to unload, and Singye and Jamphel convinced him to open a restaurant with them instead.
Zhego is one of the few restaurants of its kind in part because the city’s Bhutanese community is a relatively new one, having only started to grow about 15 years ago. Still, the trio is taking pains to stand out. So stop in, order some cheese-filled momos, and enjoy the songs of a Bhutanese rock band playing over the speakers while you dip your dumplings into the chile-spiked sauce on the side.