Brightly colored prayer flags adorn the clean, well-lit interior of Tibet Kitchen, which filled up so quickly when I visited for lunch on a Tuesday there was a line out the door for a table. Formerly occupied by Maki Yaki, a sushi joint which closed about a year ago, the new casual eatery enjoys a prime location with ample parking next to the Albertson's off of South St. Francis Drive and West Zia Road, well off the beaten trail—at least as far as Santa Fe's more well-heeled restaurants are concerned.
Tibet Kitchen is owned by Gonpo Trasar. His Tibetan family fled Chinese occupation by moving to his birthplace in India, along with thousands of other refugees—including the Dalai Lama—after the 1959 Tibetan uprising. He emigrated to the United States 20 years ago, working in restaurants in Chicago and Salt Lake City before settling in Santa Fe and starting his own business.
As a tribute to the impact of relocation on Tibetan culture, Trasar's food bears an unmistakable Indian stamp. There are crispy pakoras ($3.99), chicken in a mild yellow curry sauce ($9.99) and a subtly spiced, fragrant lentil soup ($2.99) that bears a resemblance to dahl, a classic Indian stew. It's smoothly textured and delightfully aromatic, and it especially pops when served next to the spicy and soft baked potatoes ($7.99) coated in a rich cilantro, onion and tomato sauce. Tibet Kitchen seems to have opened at that perfect time when light summer flavors are put away in favor of the cravings for homey cooking that come with fall.
Outside of the Indian influence, there's plenty on the menu that resembles the trappings of typical Chinese food, such as fried rice with peas, carrots and corn ($8.99) and thin chow mein noodles ($8.99) cooked in ginger and soy sauce, served with sauteed carrots and cabbage. But Tibet Kitchen also serves regional specialties for the more adventurous eater. There's gyuma ($9.99) a sausage typically made from yak or sheep's blood, here rendered with beef and fried to a striking black color. Or try the laphing ($3.99) an appetizer portion of cold, starchy mung bean noodles warmed by the house chile sauce. Hearty plates of floury noodles and dumplings play a major role in Tibetan food, as evidenced by the steamed bread buns called tingmo ($2.99), and the filled version known as momos, which are an easy snack to become completely obsessed with. There's a chive and vegetable version (each $8.99) and a beef option ($9.99) as well. The beef had a strange sourness that I didn't enjoy, but the vegetable momos, shaped like little puckered balls, were plump, stuffed with potatoes, peas, onions and chopped greens. All of it can be washed down with oily Tibetan butter tea ($3.99), a savory blend of butter, black tea, milk and salt. I envisioned packing a thermos of it for a trip up in the mountains and sipping it on a cold winter's day spent playing in the snow.
If the selection sounds overwhelming, Tibet Kitchen also features a lunch buffet from 11:30 am to 2:30 pm, where a rotating selection of dishes from the menu are available to pile on a plate for $9.99. On the afternoon I visited, the restaurant became so packed I feared service would be slow. Normally I'm not a huge buffet fan, but it certainly expedited my lunch hour—I had the option to stuff my face with a pile of pillowy momos, zingy cabbage salad, and warming lentil soup in less than 45 minutes. The restaurant was quick and efficient, the service friendly and professional, and the clientele decidedly down-to-earth.
On a chilly autumn day, Trasar's tribute to high-country cuisine provides a soothing, warm escape. Perhaps his food is uniquely suited to Santa Fe's mountainous setting, since Tibet has average elevations of 4,000 feet or more. In this context, its cuisine is designed to sustain energy and warm the core in extreme conditions.
Flavors are approachable, rustic and typically mild, with more earthy and herbal spices than outright hot ones. However, Tibet Kitchen serves a sauce based in New Mexican red chile and tomatoes, flavored with garlic and cilantro, that provides an essential spicy kick. After all, Tibetan food is adaptive and open to influences, continuing to evolve outside of its original traditions. This is partly by necessity, as Tibetan people must share their cuisine from a position of displacement, as refugees campaigning outside their homeland against the human rights violations that continue within. So really, it's not so unusual to see a little piece of local flavor, a simple chile sauce, find a place within the unique menu of Santa Fe's newest—and only—Tibetan restaurant.
3003 S St. Francis Drive, Ste. C, 982-6796
11:30 am-2:30 pm and 4-9 pm Monday-Saturday; closed Sunday