33-17 31st Ave., Astoria
I had been quite eagerly anticipating my first visit to the Himalaya Teahouse in Astoria. Next door to BareBurger and right across the street from Il Bambino, it promised to be yet another exceptional stop on the ever-growing stretch of deliciousness that is becoming 31st Ave. A lover of tea, and an avid dumpling fanatic, I have very much looked forward to this quaint little shop ever since my dumpling excursion in Chinatown last month. Although I have been eyeing this Astoria teahouse for weeks, because it is only open from 5pm and closed on Tuesdays, it seems to never have been conducive to my schedule.
On the train back from an outing in Manhattan, I glanced at the clock on my phone only to realize it was 5:30 on a Wednesday, which meant my bucket list teahouse should not only be open, but probably already bustling with Astorians.
Upon entering, I was instantly struck by the glorious spring sunlight that painted ribbons across the otherwise dim sanctuary of tea. There appeared to be not a soul in the restaurant yet. I was serenely overcome with a chamomile calmness, and hadn't even ordered my first pot of brew. Surely this is how the Dalai Lama relaxes, I thought to myself, and I slowly sank into a booth and waited.
Already finding my zen place, I really didn't mind. A gingerly Asian woman was rearranging pots and pans in the kitchen. Though she occasionally poked her head through a window into the dining room, it apparently seemed neither strange nor urgent to her that a man nearly double her size was snapping photos of the decor.
After about five more minutes, and her fifteenth peering into the dining room to check me out, I grabbed her attention with a small wave, hello...
She shuffled into the dining room and whispered, "nobody here yet..."
"I know," I smiled. "I've got the whole place to myself! This is incredible... May I see a menu for the tea?"
"No. I mean nobody here yet. Nobody make tea. Nobody work counter. I only cook. Maybe come soon..."
She grabbed me a menu, then scurried back to rearranging her pots and pans.
It was already 5:45, and I couldn't fathom that the entire staff was running nearly an hour late for work. I was so excited to finally be here, that I gave them the benefit of the doubt. After all, one of my best friends, Christie, is part Filipino, and she taught me that in her culture it is actually expected to arrive as much as an hour late for a scheduled event (I actually googled "Filipino etiquette" and apparently she isn't pulling my leg). If Tibet was anything like Manila, then I had actually been rude for showing up so inconsiderately early.
When the cook reappeared a few moments later, I inquired, "can I order some food from you, and then maybe try the teas and other stuff when the staff arrives?"
She looked baffled, but grabbed a notepad, and jotted down my order, then sat it on the tea counter for the delinquent server and returned to her clatter.
Just as I was about ready to call it quits, a young Asian man in his mid-twenties came running into the restaurant, tore his iPod earbuds from his head, and then sprinted over to my table. He was extremely friendly, and immediately apologized for my wait. Even though I showed him where my order had already been scribbled, he took it again, and then jumped behind the tea counter to prepare my tea.
Served in a cast iron Japanese testubin (not exactly Himalayan), my pomegranate green tea (with hibiscus and a ceylon gunpowder green tea base) was absolutely delicious, and extremely reasonable ($3.95 for a small pot that poured me almost 4 cups of tea).
The server turned on some soothing zen tunes, and I was on my way back to finding nirvana.
And then the owner came in.
What seemed to be middle-aged, wealthy, blonde Connecticut divorcee in a Tiffany blue suit coat tore through the restaurant like a bull on a cell phone in a china shop, "I think someone is running a scam on us!"
While the server opened the windows to allow in fresh air and more sunlight, I gasped as my sanctuary was ripped to shreds before me.
"Hey, how is the day going?" she hollered across the room, "I'm going to run downstairs and bring up some plastic pitchers... it's time to start selling iced tea..." and she elephant-stomped through a doorway to the basement.
Surely this was what Dorothy must have felt when she discovered the wonderful Wizard of Oz was nothing more than merely an ordinary man running bells and whistles from an electric console. As I looked around in the new light of the room, I realized I was not in a Tibetan monastery. No, it now seemed that I was sitting in Superman's Chinese country getaway cottage.
While Meryl Streep's delirious younger sister was rummaging for tupperware tea pitchers downstairs, my food arrived at the table. Maybe this experience hadn't been totally ruined.
The Himalaya Special Tibetan steamed momos were, by far, the most disappointing dumplings I've tried. Do you see how these little cocoons are nearly exploding with tumors? That's because each dumpling is stuffed with whole chickpeas and tofu chunks. If there were ever a contest to create the most bland dish in the world, I would recommend combining chickpeas with raw tofu, and wrapping them in unseasoned flour dough, then steaming them.
Now hesitant, I expected that surely the Tibetan Thukpa (handmade noodles with beef in broth) had to at least hold a wee bit more flavor. Nope. Not at all. My bath water with Mango Pomegranate Soft Soap residue reigns by far superior. How did they overcook the noodles when I was the first and only customer in the restaurant? If I added any more soy sauce, I would have walked out as the official poster boy for hypertension.
Hell-bent on trying the Pü-Cha latte (traditional Tibetan tea with steamed milk, Indian butter, and sea salt) I had to wait ten more minutes because the owner was now giving an iced tea tutorial to the server. By the time it finally came to the table, I asked for it in a to-go cup with the check.
I'd have loved to have been able to display a photo of the outdoor garden with apple tree and vines, but skipped on the photo-op as "she" was out there boisterously bellowing to an apparent tour group that had walked in moments before.
The final note left a sour taste in my mouth. What does this message on the check presenter mean?
I've heard that credit card companies charge restaurants a nominal fee for a transaction, but for the tip as well? As someone in the service industry for a long time, this strikes me as particularly fishy. Nonetheless, even if tardy, my server had been more than friendly when not distracted by his boss, so I was more than happy to give him cash gratuity -- even if it simply meant keeping it off the books.
First and last visit all in one.
Anyone have suggestions for a good dumpling in Astoria?