JACKSON HEIGHTS — The owner of a neighborhood food truck serving up momo dumplings will compete this weekend for the title of best new street food vendor in the city — saying it's just the start of his restaurant career in the city.
Momo Bros, which spent about six months parked on 73rd Street and Broadway, is nominated for the Rookie of the Year prize at this year's Vendy Awards. The annual festival doubles as a fundraiser for the Street Vendor Project, which advocates for food trucks and other street vendors across the city.
The nomination came as an honor for the truck's co-founder, Pasang Thinlay, 25, a Tibetan refugee who grew up in Nepal and spent nearly a year getting the truck up and running with his brother and another partner.
"I was just making momos, and I got nominated," he said. "I'm happy and really excited to be a part of this."
He's up against STUF'd, a truck selling gourmet toasted sandwiches; Kelvin's Truck, which sells German food; Harajuku Sushi and Crepe, offering a twist on Japanese-influenced food; and Warung Roadside, which sells Thai street food.
Thinlay plans to bring around 20 family members and friends to the awards Saturday as he shows off his specialty jhol momos, which are cooked in a sauce ubiquitous in Nepal.
Growing up in Tatopani, a small village known for its hot springs, the jhol momos were sold in roadside cafes and at his parents' hotel and restaurant.
But when he moved to Queens at 16 — reuniting with his parents who had left Nepal 10 years before — he found it hard to find the special dumplings.
So he set out to sell his own, opening Momo Bros earlier this year. He honed the recipes of his youth, creating a sauce that wasn't as spicy as what he had back home so he could appeal to more customers.
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"[Customers] love jhol momo," he said. "For Nepali immigrants, they've been in the United States for a long time, and they haven't had the taste of Nepal in a long time."
After some issues with the Momo Bros truck, which hasn't been out for a few weeks, Thinlay is branching out on his own again, and it's not clear when the truck will return.
His forthcoming food truck, Momo Delight, will feature the samei jhol momos, but also a tingmo burger, made with momo beef and the Tibetan tingmo bread; momo beef tacos; and even some French-inspired dishes he's had at one of the many restaurants he's worked at in New York.
For dessert, he's been working out a chocolate momo, which will be fried and covered in nuts.
Thinlay hopes to launch Momo Delight by the end of the year, spending his days in Midtown, where he mostly sees "a lot of hot dogs and burgers" along with Halal trucks.
"I basically want to bring something different" to the Midtown food cart scene, before driving back to Jackson Heights to catch a late crew of diners there, he explained.
Running his own business has been a lifelong dream, dating all the way back to when he danced for guests at his parent's hotel in Nepal.
Thinlay moved to Kathmandu soon after his parents left for the United States, living with a cousin, before eventually coming to Queens.
Once here, he started high school but dropped out to help his family at their supermarket. He also bar-backed and bartended and for a short time, as well as sold knockoff bags in Chinatown.
"I learned all this hustling from Chinatown," where mostly immigrant street vendors sold to tourists and locals alike, he said.
Thinlay was self conscious about his English when he first moved here, afraid of saying "something in English that would be wrong or mispronounced," he said.
But the sellers in Chinatown "don't care about their accent," he said, saying it helped him feel more comfortable. "People ignore it."
Thinlay dreams of one day opening a rooftop restaurant and bar.
"It can be like the Nepali SoHo House," he said, describing it as serving specialty cocktails and having a VIP lounge for musicians from Nepal.
But first, he's focused on this Saturday, preparing all of the food — and barely sleeping — to get ready.
"This is just the start for me," he said.