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But first you’ll have to escape the noise of Brooklyn’s busy streets. The stairs leading up to the Downtown Brooklyn branch of Yemen Café on Atlantic Avenue (there’s another location in Bay Ridge) instantly pull you out of the bustle and drop you into a relaxed café in the Middle East, where diners speak Arabic interspersed with English, French, and whatever the day’s mix of guests brings in. Although the tourism posters on the walls offer up a few visual aids for non-Yemenis—and for anyone whose image of Yemen consists mainly of that notorious Friends episode—it’s the revolving images of the Yemeni countryside and beaches on the flat-screen TV that make the strongest bid for attention. Until your food arrives.
Moments after you sit down, a platter of freshly baked Yemeni bread lands on your table along with a bowl of marag, an intense lamb-based soup flavored with sweet roasted onions. You can beg off the marag if you’re not a meat-eater, but otherwise don’t miss it.
After that, take your time to absorb the menu: Yemeni cuisine is mostly undiscovered in the U.S., and what you’ll find at Yemen Café isn’t just the usual Levantine-influenced repertoire—hummus, tabbouleh, kebabs—of many Middle Eastern restaurants stateside. Eating at Yemen Café is a chance to explore dishes rarely found elsewhere, and to sample a distinct cuisine that also has African and Asian influences. So choose wisely, and go overboard if you have the appetite and budget. You can always take leftovers home and make another meal or two out of them.
Ordering one or two of the spice-redolent lamb or chicken stews, staples of Yemeni cuisine, is a must for carnivores: The lamb fatah is a delicious bowl of minced lamb with sautéed onions, tomatoes and shreds of Yemeni bread in a lamb broth; the chicken or lamb zorbian layers juicy meat on perfectly cooked basmati rice.
For vegetarians, the unimaginatively named “vegetarian dish” is so much better than it sounds. It brings together the elements of a flavorful Yemeni stew into one extraordinary meatless mix of roasted, caramelized potatoes, okra, carrots and onions on basmati rice.
Dip your bread, or a forkful of nearly any dish you order, into the sahawek, a chunky Yemeni hot sauce of tomatoes and chili pepper, which waiters place on every table. Non-carnivores can also make a lunch or dinner out of appetizers like foul, a creamy side of mashed fava beans with tomatoes and onions.
For anyone who craves more familiar Middle Eastern options like hummus, babaghanoush or shakshoukah (eggs scrambled with onions, parsley and tomatoes), those dishes are on the menu too and can pad out the feast if you’re with a group.
Dessert? You’ll find one of the sweetest endings, the fatah with honey, hiding in the appetizer section: It’s that fabulous homebaked Yemeni bread you started with, but now it’s chopped up, cooked with Yemeni butter and honey, and ladled into a bowl with a creamy white topping called kishta, a staple of Middle Eastern desserts.
Have a few luxurious spoonfuls of that (it’s too rich for much more), and start daydreaming about a trip to Yemen someday, or another visit to this Brooklyn oasis ASAP.