BY ALEX SUNDSTROM
Can’t bear the idea of venturing outside to go to class? Having trouble walking across the windy, frozen steppes of the Law School campus without collapsing in despair on the ground? Maybe it’s your diet. The simulated turkey and quasi-lasagna of the Hark may be good for Sodexho-Marriott stockholders, but they haven’t proven able to nourish the masses in a harsh, cold environment. Tibetan food, however, will make you feel as strong as a yak, and Rangzen in Central Square is the best place in the area to eat it.
Most restaurant food either forgoes fat altogether or swims in it – the deliciousness of an Indian buffet is mitigated by the queasy feeling that follows, as everything is cooked in gallons of clarified butter and heavy cream. Rangzen’s light touch with the canola oil makes its food very distinctive – the sha phaley ($6.25 for two), fried discs of whole-wheat bread stuffed with diced beef, scallions and cilantro – uses a small enough amount of oil that it doesn’t make your fingers luminous or detract from the richness of the beef. Topped with a bit of the mild cilantro sauce, it’s purely pleasurable in a warm, wholesome way that food rarely manages to attain.
Even when the recipe calls for a bit more oil – as with the perfectly-textured flat noodles, or chow chow ($10.95-11.95) – other ingredients moderate the feel the dish creates; the noodle dishes come with very lightly sauteed apples, tomatoes, and green onions and are topped with lemon, brilliantly balancing the dish. Traditional momo, or dumplings, are the lightest, airiest things possible. The tsel momo ($10.95) sound bland, as they are merely steamed pockets of cabbage, onion, spinach, tofu and ginger, but the combination of the ginger and the onion gives the dumpling-eater excitement enough, and the toothsome dumpling skins are thick and pillowy without succumbing to toughness, although the accompanying lentil soup is unconscionably bland.
The serene feeling created by Rangzen’s food, which lingers for hours, is only magnified by the atmosphere inside the restaurant. Lilting flute music that sounds like an old Nintendo soundtrack, a Mount Everest poster covering a wall, spare wooden tables that make you feel like a monk, a portrait of the Dalai Lama watching over you – you name it. There’s even a bookshelf full of books about Tibet. More information about the country can’t hurt – those embarrassed about eating delicious chunks of beef in front of the peaceful-looking Dalai Lama portrait will be revealed to know that he himself is not a vegetarian. The sheer cuteness of the stuffed yaks atop the buffet may still give you pause, however.
The buffet itself offers pleasant luncheon interludes for $7.55. The absence of greasy gloppiness is even more of an advantage in the buffet realm, and you’ll be able to eat quite a lot of fried noodles and vegetables, dishes of potatoes with ground beef, sour spongy bread similar to that found in Ethiopian restaurants, various chicken curries, two different kinds of tea, and a yet wider bounty of delights. The buffet quality tradeoff is about what you’d expect, however; nothing I ate was as excellent as any of the dinner entrees.
Desserts at Rangzen spare sugar even more than the other dishes spare oil; sweetened rice with butter and raisins ($3.75) is tasty but unspectacular; it makes up for its lack of intensity of flavor with a contribution to the diner’s overall feeling of contentment. Chunks of bread sauteed in sugar and butter until crispy on the outside are like a light French toast, and go well with the traditional Tibetan barley tea.
Rangzen means “freedom,” an unsurprising sentiment for Tibetans. Rangzen should reassure those who shudder at the thought of the Free Tibet movement, recalling scruffy white guys in dreadlocks hectoring them about the Chinese occupation. The meal experience is too serene to be political, however, preferring to win hearts with dumplings rather than words.