Although Makye Ame opened in 1997, it still draws impressively long lines and a waiting list. It is considered by many to offer the best Tibetan restaurant in the world, and while that might be a contentious title given that food is subjective, Makye Ame is definitely the most visible Tibetan eatery in China.
Located in the heart of Lhasa, the capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region, the restaurant is painted a solid yellow. It stands out immediately from all the white-washed buildings in old town Lhasa.
"Back in 1997, I was here for a business trip and to pray when I stumbled across this building," says Tsering Wangchen, the current owner of Makye Ame.
Equipped with a perfect mustache and impeccable Chinese, Wangchen is charming and charismatic. He has a presence that immediately commands the attention of the room. He tells me he comes from the nomadic Tibetan county of Hongyuan in Sichuan and was a television presenter before he got started in the restaurant industry.
"I had thought the yellow color of the building was unusual and so I walked in," he says. "In Tibet, yellow-colored houses are very special. It's a color usually reserved for monks and monasteries."
Inside the building, he found a restaurant run by three women from the States. He became friends with them and spent the rest of his vacation in Lhasa frequenting their eatery.
"One of them was fluent in Tibetan and she told me that the building has 300 years of history," he says. "It used to be a tavern and was painted yellow when locals noticed that the sixth Dalai Llama was a patron."
The American owners had converted the space into a Western restaurant and served simple food like pizza and pasta with the occasional Nepalese and Indian dish. They told Wangchen they were looking to move back to the States and wanted to sell the restaurant.
Jokingly, Wangchen offered to buy it, and to his surprise the women took him seriously.
"And so I bought it," he says. "It was a reasonable price."
Wangchen took over the restaurant and flipped the menu completely; he decided to feature an array of traditional and modern Tibetan fare. Under his leadership, the building now houses the most popular restaurant in the town.
"We named it Makye Ame after a poem by the sixth Dalai Lama," Wangchen says. Makye ame means "unmarried girl" in Tibetan. Interpreted by some as a love letter, legend says that the young Lama was resting in the tavern when a young girl peeked inside and captured his heart. While the poem is controversial because Lamas are not allowed to have romantic pursuits, it's a fantastic backstory for the restaurant.
Today, Makye Ame has outposts in Beijing, Chengdu, and Yunnan. Wangchen has his eyes on Nepal and the US next.
As for the food, the menu features an hodgepodge of regional Tibetan dishes mixed in with modern influences.
"Historic Tibet can be divided into three different regions: Amdo, Kham, and U-Tsang," Wangchen says. "They all have their own regional differences."
Highland barley, or tsampa, is a staple all throughout the greater Tibet region. Yak is another consistent ingredient. The south of Tibet is able to grow a little bit of millet and in eastern Tibet, where he comes from, there's a mushroom that only comes up for one month out of the year in the grasslands.
"You put a little bit of butter, tsampa, and salt on the mushroom and cook it on the stove," he says.
At Makye Ame, shiitake mushrooms are used in lieu of the rare Tibetan grassland mushroom. They're coated in yak butter and salt. Chili pepper is sprinkled on for good measure.
"We take Chinese, Indian, and Western influences and mix it in with traditional Tibetan food," Wangchen notes. "If we just serve our most traditional foods, the average person won't be able to accept it."
The success of Makye Ame lies in the versatility of the menu. While the menu contains a fair representation of traditional Tibetan cuisine, there are some slight alterations for those not so attuned to a constant parade of butter, yak, and tsampa.
On the modern end, there's lamb ribs paired with beefy French fries and deep-fried yak sausages. Indian influences can be seen in the biryani section. There's also a wonderful spinach paneer made with yak cheese.
On the more traditional side, there's butter tea and lots of yak. There's yak tongue with wild onion powder, yak steak, yak with highland barley pancakes, yak jerky, and yak yogurt. The yak yogurt is freshly churned, sweet, and thick; it's the best rendition of yak yogurt I've had in my two months traveling through Tibetan lands.
My favorite is a mutton soup with radishes—a Lhasa specialty that's infused with bone marrow.
"This soup reminds me of home," Yeshi Drolma, my Tibetan friend tells me at dinner. "I am transported back to my childhood and my mother's cooking."
For Wangchen, the goal is to lift up Tibetan culture. In his Beijing, Yunnan, and Chengdu restaurants, all the ingredients come straight from Tibet. He invests millions into the decor of each restaurant. You might spot a yak butter churner at the corner or a hand-spun rug. Sometimes he'll hire musicians to play live music in the corner.
"Makye Ame is not just a restaurant," he says. "It's a stage where people can experience Tibetan culture."