I remember all the times I went to Lhasa Fast Food, and all the reactions of friends I took there and ushered through a … cell-phone-repair store (?) into the compact restaurant tucked away in the back. The Jackson Heights restaurant was the sort of place that is catnip for a certain kind of New Yorker — mostly because the momos were so juicy.
Yesterday, I was saddened to read that Lhasa was “completely destroyed” in a four-alarm fire that tore through its building in early March. On a GoFundMe page, owner Sang Jien Ben writes that he needs help because “prospects for insurance payouts and/or rebuilding soon in Jackson Heights are not looking good.” Eater reports that Lhasa Fast Food is “unlikely” to reopen in this current location because the building has to be rebuilt. That the fire happened after an incredibly long year for so many people working in the restaurant industry, and in the pandemic epicenter of Jackson Heights, only makes this hurt more. It also happened as the city was coming out of a winter in which more businesses closed and the restaurant industry’s unemployment rate shot back up.
Lhasa stood out not just because of how you got there, but still — the appeal of the location was that it was, yes, unexpected, and also evidence of someone carving out their own space, quite literally, to make room for their life and ambitions. On the GoFundMe page, Ben writes that “my success there secured life for my family.”
Places like Lhasa are intrinsic to their communities. Being lesser known to the outside world — or even the neighborhood more broadly — only strengthens the bond. Lhasa, of course, became better known (especially after it was featured on a Queens episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown), and since the original’s opening in 2012, Ben has expanded with proper storefronts in Elmhurst and the East Village, but I can’t say if I’ve actually been to either. I’ve just always gone back to the original.
Being a secret isn’t good business unless you’ve got money to burn and people are seeking you out. But in a city that’s endlessly excavated, and in a world where so much can be found by just typing a few words into your phone, a little bit of secrecy is enticing for even a semi-adventurous customer. Another of my favorites is a pool hall called Nano Billiards Cafe, ALSO, located just off the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, where you can score wonderful Dominican dishes locrio de pollo and bacalao in red sauce if you know to ask for them. Even after I had been a couple times, I remember walking by and missing it — maybe because some scaffolding went up, or maybe just because I was in my own world. But I’d stop by whenever I could, when I was going up to Arthur Avenue or checking out some new restaurants, getting off the subway a few stops early.
Over the past year, even as I’ve made my way around the city — hopping on my bike to get Thai food in Elmhurst or making my way to Lechonera La Piraña — I’ve missed stumbling into these places. Unless you’re a part of the community, you are, of course, an interloper, as I was at Nano Billiards.
Mostly, it’s the stumbling around that I miss, just being out in the world. The places that we tend to call hidden gems can feel like entering a part of the city that exists beneath the surface, end points that you’ll only find if you’re willing to look around, to find people making their place wherever they can.