"Ema" is chile, "datsi" is cheese, and ema datsi is a dish from a tiny Himalayan kingdom in which hot peppers are used, not as a seasoning, but as a vegetable. More chiles and cheese, as well as onion (and, I believe, garlic) appeared in the salsa-like condiment beside the traditional red rice.
It's quite spicy — the peppers were serranos, or something similar — but back home ema datsi is even spicier, a Bhutanese fellow diner assured me. The kitchen may have cut me some (unwanted) slack by scraping out many of the seeds; if you want the real deal, a firm hand is indicated when placing your order. As for the cheese, it's less runny than it might seem. The final photo gives a better indication of the consistency.
Ema Datsi, which is Bhutanese-owned and -operated, inevitably also offers menu items from neighboring Tibet and India. Though I'm eager to try the restaurant's version of traditional Bhutanese buckwheat noodles, I'm also intrigued by the housemade gyuma, a Tibetan blood sausage filled with tsampa.
Weighed against the super-cheap, sometimes mysterious eats at Fujianese four-over-rice storefronts, the Thai fare at this corner cafeteria is roughly twice as expensive. Here the cost is all of $7.50 for just three choices, and you must make do without that bowl of thin Chinese soup. Decidedly in Khao Kang's favor, however, the steam table is refreshed more often than most, and the flavors are as spritely as any. Shown: an egg-and-vegetable cookup, jungle curry with vegetables and fish, and sour pork sausage; chunky spicy pork, ground spicy pork, and Penang curry. A bargain.
Best of all: On milder days, windows on two sides are thrown open onto quiet sidewalks. You won't miss the traffic of Chinatown, or Bangkok, one bit.
Atoles (ah-Toll-ays) are an extended family of beverages, usually cornmeal-based, of various consistencies, that are common in Latin America. This particular Mexican atol (small, $1.50) is thin, with a faint tropical-fruit flavor. Fail to take note of the handwritten sign on the front door, and you might furrow your brow for a moment or two before you identify guayaba — guava.
Often referred to as a "Oaxacan pizza," a tlayuda (tlah-Yoo-dah) takes "thin crust" to an extreme. While even the crispest bar pie of my acquaintance is pliable in the middle, the tlayuda is shatteringly crisp from one edge to the other.
The name denotes both the bare, baked tortilla, which this Mexican grocery sells by the bag, and the prepared dish made with it ($9 to $12). For their basic version, the cooks at La Cienega smear the tortilla with pork lard and refried black beans, heat it on a flattop, and dress it with a mozzarella-like white cheese, lettuce, tomato, and avocado. Optional toppings — in my case nopales, or cactus, with good timing chivo, or goat — are heated separately and added as the dish is dressed. Though the assembled tlayuda, sliced like a pizza before serving, holds together only loosely, that courtesy plastic fork is less adequate to the task than nimble fingers.
(This venue is closed.) That tingle tells you, if you aren't on top of your East Asian geography, that Tibet borders Sichuan province and that dofu khatse ngoen ma ($5.75) is a Himalayan take on Chinese mapo tofu. (Even at Chinese restaurants the name of the dish can vary. Szechuan Gourmet, which uses an older romanization for the province, gives it a curiously Western-sounding name.) This dofu khatse lacked complexity, but the bean curd was soft and the sauce had a bite; I was glad my sweet lassi ($2.50) was already at hand.
On offer: yerba buena, also spelled hierba buena (in the little bucket), a name that denotes various species of mint, and pápalo, a peppery herb that insistently makes its presence known in cemitas. At this moment the vendor and her cart were paused outside a self-service laundromat crowded with likely customers; a nearby nail salon was the likely next stop.
Asked for a dish distinctive to Medan, capital of the Indonesian province of North Sumatra and first home to the chef, my waitress pointed to emie (Ay-mee, $7.50). Unlike most of Sky Cafe's noodles, which are served in chicken broth, these "gravy egg noodles" are swamped in a sauce prepared from long-simmered shrimp. The bowl is filled out with potato, firm tofu, a few small shrimp, and a hardboiled egg, topped with seafood-flavored crackers that snap and pop in the gravy, and freshened with a last-second squeeze of lime. Chopsticks are the traditional utensils, but for finishing off the gravy, using a spoon is more decorous than tipping the bowl to your lips.
Emie is sometimes also known as mee rebus (reh-Boos), meaning "boiled noodles." The now-closed Malaysian restaurant Mamak House served one of many variations.
Sky Cafe opened in mid-July in the space that previously was home to Mie Jakarta and Pondok Jakarta. The menu, still under development, is very similar to that at the original, Philadelphia location; prices currently top out at $9.