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A Tibetan refugee hopes to build community around his D.C. hot pot spot

At Dorjee Momo, the mixed meat and vegetable hot pot service is available by reservation only. (Deb Lindsey/For The Washington Post)

Chef Dorjee Tsering’s restaurant near Eastern Market seats only 27 diners — a far cry from the thousands (yes, thousands) of Buddhist monks he used to cook for in Tibet when he was training to become one. He would chop onions and potatoes, stew vegetables, bake bread and serve tea.

After 16 years working in monasteries, he became a refu­gee and crossed the Himalayas on foot.

“A lot of our friends had no shoes and jacket. Some people got frostbite,” Tsering said. “But we [didn’t] have a choice.”

He went to Dharamsala, India, where the Dalai Lama lives, and he worked at a bakery. There, he met his wife, Amberjade Tsering, an American, and the pair came to Washington. As the former monk worked his way through a bad case of culture shock while cooking at Maketto and Union Kitchen, he realized that his new city was in dire need of not only Tibetan food, but also community.

The Tserings have opened Dorjee Momo, a tiny, welcoming Tibetan restaurant on the top floor of Bullfrog Bagels.

A momo is a Tibetan dumpling, the chef’s favorite food from his childhood and one of the menu’s star attractions.

“They’re really popular in Tibet for New Year’s and any celebration,” he said. The best part? “Sucking out the juice.”

The restaurant’s namesake dumplings (which often are filled with lamb, but had chicken inside on the night of my visit) are plump and juicy, and come bathed in spicy oil and sesame seeds. They’re a can’t-miss dish for a walk-in — but you’d do better to plan ahead for your visit.

The restaurant’s star attraction is its hot pot, available by reservation only and for three time slots each night. For the unfamiliar, hot pot is an interactive meal — a boiling pot of soup at your table, with ingredients to dip and add to the broth, which is complex and layered with flavor. And it’s spicy enough to give you the forehead sweats, but not so fiery that you lose your ability to taste its nuances. Among the components: a fermented black bean base, chile, sesame oil, goji berries, green and black cardamom, cloves, ginger, garlic and dates. It’s vegan, unless you opt for the meat version, which costs $45 per person.

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A box — so big it could really be called a crate — of veggies arrives at the table, with options aplenty. There’s potato, cabbage, bok choy, broccoli, several types of mushrooms (including wood ear and enoki), and tofu, although the options can change. Meat-eaters get all that, plus a bowl of tiny dumplings and some thinly sliced pork belly and beef.

If you’re a hot pot first-timer, don’t be intimidated. The team at Dorjee Momo will gently guide you through the experience. Diners cook everything in the boiling pot for about a minute, and eat it with a bowl of rice.Each bite is good on its own, but is even better when dredged through a dish of garlic and oil. A plate of pickles, including lotus roots and turnips, provides relief from the heat — especially the pickled grapes that, steeped in star anise, hint at the flavor of mulled wine. And the steamed buns with crispy pork belly are another welcome break when you feel yourself beginning to mop your brow. There’s a small selection of cocktails, such as aquavit infused with Tibetan peppercorns, and litchi juice and herbal soda for those who don’t imbibe.

The trickiest thing about Dorjee Momo, especially if you’re getting the hot pot, is the size of the tables. The restaurant is in a tiny, narrow space, and trying to seat as many people as it can comfortably squeeze in. But the hot plate and box of vegetables take up the entire table, leaving an approximate margin of five inches for your drinks, sauce, bowl of rice and any other items you might order. With no room for our dumpling plate, it got stacked on top of our vegetables.

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Upgrading to roomier digs is on the Tserings’ list of goals, and they also plan to introduce boozy boba drinks and Himachali Dham, a dish of several curries and dals served on a leaf used as a platter — a specialty of the region in India where they once lived. The chef’s family has also fashioned a traditional Tibetan tent, which the restaurant will use for special dinners and pop-ups.

“It’s really important for Dorjee that people feel full,” said Amberjade Tsering, and she meant their stomachs. (No problems there; the hot pot is enormous.) But the same goes for their spirits, which will be nourished by this immigrant kitchen.

Dorjee Momo, 317 Seventh St. SE. Dishes, $8 to $16; hot pot, $35 to $45 per person.

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