If the three rules of restaurants, like the three rules of real estate, were location, location, location, Rangzen’s—a charming little Tibetan place in Cambridge—would have failed me long ago.
To get there, you take the T to Central Square, walk up Mass. Ave. a few blocks, then remember, no, I’m going completely the wrong way, turn around, walk back, veer left, think, this looks totally unfamiliar, reverse course, go right, cruise up a few more blocks, turn left again, realize the street is again wrong, head back to Mass. Ave., finally find Pearl Street on your left, follow it to the corner of Green Street and at long last, through a tiny door, reach your target.
And I can only imagine how difficult it is for people not being led by someone who’s been there a half dozen times before. I can also only imagine how easy it would be for someone who walked straight up Mass. Ave. and had less limited navigational abilities than I do.
There’s something about Rangzen’s worth the rigmarole, and it’s called authenticity. Unlike so many places that spend years painfully trying (and failing) to be something they’re not, Rangzen’s knows exactly what it is, and what it can do. Unlike any number of Asian-American chefs who have abandoned their heritage—and make a trendy (but mediocre) ginger smoked duck instead of the stodgy (but amazing) yakitori they’ve known forever—the cooks at Rangzen’s defy the fads, embrace their roots, and succeed.
Walking in, though, I felt almost lonely. I’ve been twice—once for a late weekday lunch, again for a Saturday dinner—and both times was disappointed that the restaurant, a quintessential hole-in-the-wall with no more than a dozen small tables, never managed to quite fill up. Eventually I convinced myself that in one sense, that’s almost part of Rangzen’s charm: you can go for a quiet dinner and not be crowded or forced to run into anyone.
The place is simple and casual and dimly lit, with books (about Tibet) lining the walls, and posters (of Tibet) above the books. Everything seems clean, if a little dingy. Rangzen’s looks as though it’s seen better days, even though I’m sure it hasn’t.
We’re seated in a small booth along the wall, and immediately (and I do mean immediately) get asked about beverages. In the spirit of trying new things, I order po cha, which is hot black tea with milk, butter and salt—a profoundly satisfying staple meant to counter those brutally cold Tibetan winters.
And in about nine seconds, Yun, our charmless but unbelievably efficient waiter is back, putting down the tea, and breathless to take our order. Impressed by the speed and the lack of pretense, I try desperately to keep up—my eyes darting across the enormous menu, ordering all sorts of things I’ve never seen before.
Appetizers? In almost scatter-shot fashion, I go with sha phaley (bread patties stuffed with chopped beef, cilantro, and scallion), cucumber salad dressed in cilantro and yogurt, and temma soup, with lentils, tomatoes, onions and garlic, each about $5.
The latter two are fantastic—light, nourishing, and fresh. The bread patties are delicious for about four bites, and then quickly become too heavy, to the point where I can feel the grease oozing down my throat. I would advise avoiding anything deep-fried unless McDonald’s apple pie is your favorite dessert—in which case, you have plenty of options.
Over two trips, I ordered so many entrees, all of which ranged from about $9 to $13: chura po tsel, beautifully sautéed spinach and tender golden tofu, tossed in a light ginger and garlic sauce, phing tsel, wonderfully hearty noodles made of beans and served with spinach and potatoes.
By the way, if you are a vegetarian, there is no better choice than Tibetan food. I’ve actually never been to a restaurant that is not explicitly vegetarian with as many vegetarian options as Rangzen’s. There are at least 13 vegetarian entrees alone.
But back to the all-important subject of what I ordered: chhasha curry was an interesting test because Tibetan cuisine is as much Indian as it is Chinese—and Rangzen’s passed with flying colors. The chicken was tender and peppery, with just enough cumin, and not overwhelmed by tomatoes. It was fabulous mushed up in the rice. Langsha duluma (sliced beef fried with eggplant and ginger) was not so impressive—but consistent with the general rule not to order anything too heavy. And my favorite was chhasha chhu tsel, chicken and watercress in a sizzling garlic and chili sauce, very light but with a crisp and tangy twist.
My advice on this place is simple: go now, whether you’re hungry or not. Because, by the time you get there, you will be—and Rangzen’s, after a little trial and error, will offer something uniquely satisfying.
Rangzen’s Tibetan Restaurant
24 Pearl Street
Lunch and Dinner
11:45 a.m.–2:45 p.m.
5:30 p.m.–10 p.m.