WOODSIDE — A former Buddhist monk turned speedy sandwich-maker has opened what he claims is the first Bhutanese restaurant in New York City.
Lekay Drakpa, 40, opened Bhutanese Ema Datsi restaurant Monday on Woodside Avenue after six years behind the counter at two Subway restaurants in Manhattan and 12 years before that studying to be a monk in India.
His restaurant features food from the Kingdom of Bhutan, which is "very simple, mostly really spicy," he said.
The menu is filled with hearty meat and red rice dishes, like sekam thali, which is a dried pork spiced with red chillies.
Drakpa, who was born in Tibet and grew up in India, said it's the city's only restaurant with a main focus on Bhutanese food.
He named the restaurant Ema Datsi after the chili pepper and cheese recipe that is the official dish of Bhutan, and is instantly recognizable by other Himalayan people, he said.
The restaurant also features Indian and Tibetan staples, which can appeal to those not familiar with the spice level in Bhutanese food.
"Some people don't like spicy things, so I'm going to give them a different option," he said.
Drakpa lives in Sunnyside and moved to New York seven years ago.
He began working at a Subway restaurant on 25th Street and Lexington Avenue in Manhattan and picked things up quickly, remembering customers' orders and teaching his co-workers faster methods to work through Midtown crowds, he said.
"I can make a sandwich in 35 seconds," he said, and described his method of placing prepared meat and vegetables quickly on bread, like a dealer laying out a deck of cards on a poker table.
Drakpa later became a manager at another Subway on 17th Street and Eighth Avenue, but he knew he wanted to branch out on his own.
"My whole life I worked for someone else," he said. "I'm trying to do my own business, be a good businessman."
He decided to open the Bhutanese-focused restaurant on the Woodside-Elmhurst border, where a number of immigrants from Tibet and Nepal live.
Drakpa's hope is to create a home for Bhutanese immigrants and others, and he will be stocking the bar once he gets the proper permits.
Despite a varied experience, he said he's still nervous about his venture — but feels he's on the right path.
"I have to do this," he said.
Bhutanese Ema Datsi, 67-21 Woodside Ave., is open Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. until 11 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. until 12 a.m.