>> Weekender Billiard | Eat the World NYC

18 October 2018

Weekender Billiard

Photo by Sasha Maslov for The Queens Tribune.

From the outset, Pema Gyeltshen, the co-owner of Weekender Billiard, got his ratios wrong. When he opened his snooker hall in 2014, four of the larger-than-billiard tables filled the space with a kitchen and a few dining tables placed as an afterthought. Over time, one snooker table was removed in favor of more space for dining customers, and then another. Now the space is almost evenly cut in half: two snooker tables for gaming on one side, and about a dozen dinner tables for satisfying the demands of the many regular customers on the other.

Over a cup of his homemade and probably best-in-the-borough butter tea, Pema told me about his casual relationship with snooker, a game very popular back home. The decision to open Weekender as a gaming location with his cousin Lhendup Zangmo and her husband, Jamyang Tsultrim, who is from Tibet, mostly stemmed from not wanting to make people wait for their meals without something to do.

“Our food takes longer to prepare than most,” he explained simply.

Shamu datse and ema datse. Photo by Sasha Maslov for The Queens Tribune.

But based on the constant stream of business in evidence whenever the restaurant is open, most do not mind the wait even if they have no idea how snooker works.

Amateur billiards players will often boast that somewhere between their second and fourth beer, their game is at its peak. But you will not often find the players here with beers because snooker is not a game for the drunk: The pockets are so much smaller than billiards and the distances to them longer. As a result, most people have that butter tea or possibly a can of Red Bull. The tables are often empty during weekdays, but on the weekend (as the name of the place suggests), you will probably have a bit of a wait for one of the $13/hour tables. This is also the time you may find an impromptu jam session breaking out on Weekender’s stage if people have brought their instruments and have a beer or two.

When the snooker hall is open, the kitchen is too, but from the street you might think you have arrived before opening time. Unless it is dark out, the tinted windows almost obscure everything within, and heavy drapes sometimes block the rest. But if the metal gate is up, be confident you can swing open the dark, heavy wooden door and come inside.

Phagsha sikam pak. Photo by Sasha Maslov for The Queens Tribune.

Chef Norbu Gyeltshen (no relation to Pema) is from Tibet, the place in South Asia that most closely resembles Bhutanese culture and language. Since the Bhutanese community in New York City is much smaller than the Tibetan one, the menu here (and the awning outside) caters to both. Furthering the family-owned feel of Weekender is Pema’s sister Jigme, who can be found here often but also helps out in the kitchen when dinner crowds start to overwhelm the chef.

Many folks who did not grow up in the high elevations of the Himalayas and who may have done a Google search before coming for this new food will veer towards the list of datse. The dish ema datse, a combination of chilis and cheese, is even said to be the national dish. It is wonderful here in all its fiery glory, but during one of my first visits, Pema set me straight when we talked about a typical meal and what needed to be ordered. On the menu underneath these datse—which can be eaten also with potato, mushroom, beef or pork—is listed the phagsha sikam pak (above). It is this dish of which he spoke most highly and said could not be missed.

“This is the real Bhutanese food,” Pema explained.

Jasha maroo centers a Bhutanese feast. Photo by Sasha Maslov for The Queens Tribune.

And most real Bhutanese food of any variety must be eaten with the country’s unique semi-milled red rice, which grows at the high elevations. Eue chum has an earthy, nutty taste to it, and will be your only relief during the meal if you have trouble with spicy foods. The phagsha sikam pak, a dish of thick stir-fried pork belly slices, is laced with red pepper and served with vegetables or beans. This “dry” style of meat is also available with beef or fish.

In addition to the rice, Weekender now has bottled beer in its fridge, which can help with the heat of its dishes. In the beginning the word “bar” on the awning was more an aspiration, but even now I do not see many people drinking alcohol except on weekends. Instead, they are hovering over bowls of bathup, a complex meat-of-your-choice soup that is full of thick hand-cut noodles and runs an orange-red color thanks to the peppers used to make the broth. You will rarely find diners here alone; rather, groups of young and old Bhutanese and Tibetans have full tables of food like jasha maroo (above), another spicy dish that could translate as Bhutanese chicken stew, and bumthang putang (below), buckwheat noodles that probably could be categorized as an acquired taste. If people do come solo, they usually grab a quick order for takeout and chat with Pema or Jamyang while waiting.

Bumthang putang. Photo by Sasha Maslov for The Queens Tribune.

Crossover dishes eaten in both Bhutan and Tibet like momos and chicken and beef chilly are found in the appetizers section and make an appearance at most tables no matter who the diners may be.

The atmosphere here might not earn any stars from food critics, but for my taste it is hard to beat. Like other favorites around the city, it knows who it is and focuses in on that. Besides serving wonderful food, Weekender feels like the place Bhutanese people in Queens come to interact and feel community. The flag is on the wall and some tourism posters surround the dining room, but the people make it more than that. As guests from places other than the Himalayas contemplate why Bhutanese food is so spicy and uses so much cheese, regulars and staff here will be happy to welcome you in and divulge these and other secrets.

41-46 54th Street
Weekender Billiard and Bar, Inc. Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato


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