Little Tibet creates a space for Himalayan comfort food

Before opening the restaurant in March 2019, the family ran a food cart called dZi Little Tibet for three years.
A plate of Bhajia, an appetizer made with spinach, ginger, onion and cilantro that are fried in chickpea flour and topped with a tamarind chutney.
Bhajia are an appetizer made with spinach, ginger, onion and cilantro that are fried in chickpea flour and topped with a tamarind chutney. Photo by Erica Krug

Little Tibet owner Namgyal Ponsar greets me with a warm cup of creamy chai tea, a welcome drink on a damp December day. The music of Ani Choying — “she’s known as the singing Buddhist nun,” Ponsar says with a smile — plays in the background. With her restaurant on East Johnson Street, which she owns with her brother Tharten Tsering and brother-in-law Thinley Tenzin, Ponsar says she wanted the opportunity to share her Tibetan culture with the Madison community.

Before opening the restaurant in March 2019, the family ran a food cart called dZi Little Tibet for three years. Ponsar says after the success of the food cart they were ready to move to the next level. “We felt like we needed to take a risk and open a restaurant for the people of the Madison,” Ponsar says. “People in Madison like a lot of ethnic foods and [we thought] it would be a good addition for our community.”

Thinley Tenzin (from left to right)

Tharten Tsering, Namgyal Ponsar and Thinley Tenzin (from left to right) Photo by Erica Krug

Raised in India, Ponsar moved the United States in 2000, the first of her family to come to this country. Living in New York City, Ponsar had a flea market in Times Square. “And then September 11 happened,” Ponsar says. “I couldn’t afford to stay open — the rent was high and I didn’t have any more customers. I was thinking about moving to a different city so a cousin suggested I come to Madison.”

Many members of Ponsar’s family followed her to Madison, including Tsering who went to culinary school in India. In 2016, the family decided to open the food cart; three years later they opened their restaurant.

At Little Tibet they serve what Ponsar calls “Himalayan” food. “When I say ‘Himalayan’ there are a couple of countries that we share a lot in common in terms of food, religion, culture, which includes Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan,” Ponsar says. “I made my menu based on those three countries. I picked a little from each place.”

a bowl of mini momo soup with chopsticks

Mokthu, or mini momo soup, is made with a flavorful vegetable broth and dumplings filled with spinach, potato and scallions. Photo by Erica Krug

Little Tibet’s signature dish, dumplings — called momo — are Himalayan “soul food,” Ponsar says. “All three countries, Nepal, Tibet, and Bhutan, they eat momo a lot. It’s a food for celebration usually.” Little Tibet’s momo, filled with beef, chicken or vegetarian (potatoes and spinach) are traditionally served steamed and come with vegetable broth soup and fermented beet and daikon radish salad. Smaller dumplings are also available in a special soup — “it’s called ‘mokthu’ but in American we call it mini momo soup,” Ponsar says. Shaped a little differently with a small “tail,” Ponsar says the mini momos, also filled with spinach, potatoes, scallions and garlic, have a name that translates to “mouse.” Served in a large bowl of vegetable broth with lots of vegetables, this dish is comfort food defined.

“I think this food is full of nutrients,” Ponsar says. “The broth that I make is made with fresh vegetables cut every morning. Instead of things out throwing out — like when you peel the carrots — I wash the skin really well and then boil the vegetables like broccoli stem, carrot peels, cabbage, ginger and celery. When we have left over vegetables, we turn it into broth.”

storefront of Little Tibet

Little Tibet opened on East Johnson Street in March 2019

“Our food is nothing fancy,” Ponsar says. “We just try to source really quality ingredients. Our food is very traditional, very simple.” While Ponsar spent two years farming for the food cart at the Farley Center in Verona, she took this year off because of opening the restaurant. She now relies on other local farmers to provide the restaurant with lots of organic vegetables and herbs including radishes, jalapeños, tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbages and cilantro. “We have friends who are amateur farmers and they grow food for us so I can use a lot of fresh ingredients in the summer,” Ponsar says.

Coming up on their first anniversary, Ponsar says all of the challenges that come with owning a restaurant, including worker shortages and the physical and mental demands of the job, have been worth it. “Deep down there is this sense of pride and rewarding feeling that at least we took the risk and now we are giving the opportunity to people to come and experience our culture,” Ponsar says.