To get to Phayul you have to follow the signs around the corner from where the street address really is. Then you pass by the guy selling batteries, and walk up a narrow flight of stairs following the signs for a hairdresser and advertising a basement office for rent. You pull back a curtain and suddenly you’re in a small bright room, with perhaps a Buddhist monk sitting in one corner, and you realize that you’re the only person there for whom English is the first language. It’s places like Phayul that make NYC an amazing place to dine, because you can picture yourself in a Tibetan café and yet it’s less than an hour away from your Brooklyn apartment. I almost don’t want to write about Phayul because it feels like a wonderful secret.
After reading about Phayul in the Village Voice I knew I wanted to eat there, and I wanted to eat the mung bean jelly known as laphing. It took me a few tries to get the right pressure with the chopsticks so that I wouldn’t cut through them but wouldn’t allow them to slither out of my grasp. There’s not a lot of taste to them, even when doused in the chili sauce, but the cold jelly had a great texture and it was really fun to eat.
For an entree I chose the vegetarian one with the most interesting description: “shredded potatoes sauteed with green peppers”. It may conjure up images of diner-style hash browns, but this unusual dish is one of the best things I’ve eaten in a very, very long time. The shredded potatoes are cooked until just cooked through and so stay slightly crisp, and are tossed with spring onions and a mix of fresh green chilis, dried red chilis, and a smattering of Szechuan peppercorns.
If you’ve never eaten a Szechuan peppercorn, I will attempt to describe the experience, which is a unique one. When you first bite into it, you get a taste of something almost floral. Then you become aware of a numbing tingle on your tongue, which slowly spreads to your lips. It’s a lot of fun.
Back to the dish. Good on its own it was transformed into something magical with a dollop of the vinegar-chili paste provided on the table. All at once salty, spicy, and comforting, it’s just about everything you could want in a meal. And the rice… oh, the rice. Very thin grains, and scented with something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. It could have been more peppercorns.
In the past I’ve only ever gone to Jackson Heights for the Indian food, which is plentiful and good. In fact, after eating at Phayul I made a stop at Patel Brothers for some Indian ingredients for my pantry. But now when I’m in the neighborhood, my first thought will be Tibetan food and how quickly I can get back up those stairs.
Phayul — 3765 74th St, Queens