Traveling to new countries means an opportunity to sample the authentic cuisine of that culture. But the United States, with her many urban metropolises and history of international immigration, offers more than just traditional American fare. Visitors to any big American city can wander through bustling ethnic neighborhoods where residents combine the flavors of their homelands with the ingredients at hand.
No wonder that Americans have always looked to other countries and cultures for culinary inspiration. Located three blocks from the San Francisco City Center Hostel, Yemeni's Restaurant never fails to inspire. During a recent visit, accompanied by the hostel's Activities Coordinator, Anthony, Yemeni's owner Ali Abubaker and head chef Abdul Alrammah explained why Yemeni food is surprisingly unlike other Middle Eastern cuisines.
Over a warm cup of tea, they told us that Yemen was kept isolated by the king for many years. "The king kept other people away from Yemen," explained Abdul, a policy that resulted in a pure culinary tradition that was relatively uninfluenced by other cultures.
Yemeni food has a unique blend of spices not present in other Arabic and Middle Eastern dishes, and it's that distinct kick that makes Ali and Abdul so proud of their extremely authentic restaurant, which they bill as the only Yemeni restaurant in the U.S. Everything at Yemeni's is made fresh that day, from scratch, and some of the ingredients are sourced from their neighborhood "halal" butcher.
Both Ali and Abdul made their way to the West Coast via New York City and Detroit, eventually landing in San Francisco. Abdul cut his teeth in Italian kitchens in New York, but he much prefers cooking traditional Yemeni food. He's been perfecting the Yemeni blend of spices (among them aniseed, fennel seed, cardamom, and ginger) for a few years now and is very proud of his menu which includes housemade tanour bread, a special tabbouleh, and "haneed" or roast lamb (his favorite thing to cook).
Yemeni's stand-out specialty, however, is the traditional "salteh," the national dish of Yemen. Something between a stew and a porridge, salteh is a lamb-based broth with a medley of vegetables and a magical combination of spices that give it a distinctive aroma and a beautiful bright green hue. The most important ingredient is helba, also known as fenugreek, which comes from a white-flowered herbaceous plant in the pea family. Powdered helba is soaked overnight and then ground even finer, before being combined with other spices. The dish is served in a traditional stone pot, similar to a tajine, that the owners ship over from Yemen.
Yemeni's is more than just a restaurant -- it's like a cultural meeting place that serves food, a place where people come to enjoy the cuisine of their homeland (something quite rare in a town overrun with hip eateries offering the same trendy food du jour).
"Muslim people, they feel comfortable coming here... and they know the food is cooked the right way," says Abdul -- the "right way" being halal, like the Arabic version of kosher. Yemeni's prepares dishes that recall the flavor of a country with a rich culinary heritage, and the food is meant to evoke a sense of home. As Abdul says, "You miss always your home food."
Yemeni's Restaurant, 1098 Sutter Street at Larkin. Open daily, 11 a.m. - 10 p.m. (except during Ramadan, when they're open until midnight).
This article is the fourth in a series profiling the local businesses that neighbor the San Francisco City Center Hostel. We met up at Olive Bar last time, and before that we visited Hyde Away Blues BBQ and Hooker's Sweet Treats.