More Momo, More Flavor
Jeff Orlick belongs to everyone and no one. The founder of Jackson Heights’ annual Momo Crawl shakes hands often yet rarely remembers anyone’s name. He appears equally enthused and uninterested, engaged and untouchable, enthralled and uninvolved—all at the same time. Orlick is on his way to break up with someone.
But, for the next two hours, he is also out making his rounds as the unofficial mayor of momos. Not far from Diversity Plaza, Mohammed Rashid, a 60-something man delivering stacks of a community paper, stops Orlick to catch up outside the Momo Bros truck.
“I think his girlfriend left him,” Rashid leans over to tell me in the midst of talking a mile a minute. “Which one?” asks Orlick, overhearing our conversation. Rashid pivots. “This guy is like a brother to me,” he affirms Orlick’s impartial position in the community. “He’s a scientist—always experimenting with something new. One of the best persons around.”
Despite word on the (literal) street, 10 years ago Orlick was single. He settled in Jackson Heights and found himself surrounded by restaurants without a dining companion in the same borough. So he started a supper club of sorts as a way to make friends in a neighborhood lacking bars or other ways for young people (without a particular religious affiliation) to connect. His “Jackson Heights Food Group” led him to experience one of his first momos (aka steamed dumplings, for the uninitiated) at Shangri-La Express with fellow members of an online neighborhood forum. He soon began blogging about restaurants in Queens, unintentionally establishing himself as an “expert” for giving food tours. Along the way he recognized the momo’s characteristic of exotic-meets-familiar as a vehicle for introducing people to Himalayan culture.
“The problem is that people don’t understand what the food is,” Orlick says of immigrant cooking in general. “People need an introduction—to walk into a place, put their feet on the floor and be comfortable.” And, approaching its sixth year, the Momo Crawl does just that. On the day of the New York City Marathon (“because the trains are always running”), Orlick enlists every Himalayan restaurant in Jackson Heights to sell their momos to an ever-growing crowd (it started with 30 “friends” and most recently drew an estimated 1,200 participants) who purchase maps outlining about 25 dumpling destinations to sample before voting on an ultimate winner.
The concept of the crawl and the defining dish are simple, but organizing anything in Queens can be difficult. Tenzin Choeyni, co-owner of the reigning Momo Crawl champion, Little Tibet, agrees that planning can get out of hand considering most Himalayan restaurants are owned and operated by the same family. “He’s an angel without the wings,” she says of Orlick, who also moonlights as Little Tibet’s “beverage director” in exchange for food.
“I’m a Jew from Long Island who grew up an outsider,” Orlick explains over fried pork momos at Lali Guras (which originally declined to participate in the crawl, prompting Orlick to buy “a bunch of momos” to sell before they “got the hint” and served them directly the next year). “It almost needs to [be] someone not involved with one [culture] over another.” He rarely (if ever) receives negative feedback about his efforts, with the exception of one aspect: the price.
“It’s people’s inclination to be as cheap as possible and knock down everyone else,” Orlick says of Asian cuisine in particular. “It’s really important that this neighborhood does not get in a price war with each other. Like in Chinatown, there’s four dumplings for a dollar. People salivate over that and it lowers quality of the food and also lowers the quality of life.”
As an unbiased observer of the many Himalayan cultures in Jackson Heights, Orlick welcomes debate over his set price point. “We should not be discounting our food. We should not be discounting the people who live and work here,” he argues. Each dollar is paid directly to the vendor (Orlick only accepts money for maps) and helps them make more money, employ more people for the day and contribute funds for the next crawl.
“Maybe it’s therapeutic,” he says of spending an inordinate amount of time thinking about momos for no pay. Coming from a family of Holocaust refugees—some of whom were denied access into the United States—he feels tasked with keeping a culture intact and a neighborhood free of “McDonald’s money.” His purpose as a selfdescribed outsider allows him to answer solely to himself, aside from acting as an ambassador for the neighborhood’s actively anticipated Momo Crawl.
It’s clear Orlick has a lot on his mind: a complex crawl to plan (almost innately) by the seat of his pants, a responsibility to an adopted community, a breakup. He is unusual in nature, yet strangely similar to the way he describes the momo itself, with equal parts intrigue and comfort.
“It’s a magical combination,” he says. “And naturally, people are drawn to this.”
The 6th Annual Momo Crawl took place in Jackson Heights’ Diversity Plaza on November 5. Visit Instagram for more details on next year's crawl or email firstname.lastname@example.org if you can help “polish a rock, create a championship momo belt” or “create a Momo-la costume.”