Call me shallow, but I travel to eat.
Taking a car or plane to eyeball majestic vistas, historic buildings and art museums is nice, but my favorite vehicle for broadening my horizons is a table.
So when given the chance to try an ancient and vibrant cuisine, no passport required, I jumped.
Despite our area’s sizeable Yemeni population, there haven’t been many successful Yemeni restaurants. So when an adventurous Polish-American eater and folks with roots in the Lackawanna soccer community praised the same place, six blocks from the Broadway Market, I showed up.
Al Mandy Restaurant is a scrappy little place with room for about a dozen diners to sit and eat. The restaurant is named after mandy, a roasted-meat-and-rice dish, but there’s plenty of other things on offer, including vegetable dishes, fish and freshly baked flatbread. With words of guidance from a Yemeni-American interpreter, we dug in.
Yemen is on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, its port Aden part of a historic trade route between India and Africa. Spices better known in Indian cuisine – turmeric, cardamom, fenugreek – play important roles in Yemeni cooking. Cardamom flavors the tea offered free with purchase from an urn near the cash register. It is sweet, aromatic and powerfully caffeinated.
After ordering in consultation with owner Mohamed Abdullah at the counter, I sat down to chat with guests.
A cook brought us a tray of soup, a traditional, free beginning. The golden chicken broth was earthy with turmeric and cumin, full-bodied and soothing. Alongside it, to be applied by choice, was a Yemenite condiment called sahawik, a fresh-ground tomato salsa punchy with garlic, jalapeno and cilantro.
Salads followed, American style: iceberg lettuce and red cabbage with red onion, red bell pepper, shredded carrot, parsley and squiggles of ranch-like dressing. We pecked at them while waiting for the main event, and after about 30 minutes platters started arriving.
Fassolia with eggs ($7.99) was firm white beans scrambled with eggs, turmeric-scented and mild, dressed with nutty tahini sauce. Dollops of freshly ground garlic paste and a spicy green chile-cilantro version of sahawik offered ways to jack up the flavor.
Kibda ($9.99) is a liver dish traditionally offered for breakfast, but available all day. Bites of meat are simmered in warming spices, including cardamom, black pepper and clove, with red bell pepper and onions. The result was tender and almost devoid of the metallic overtones that can be disagreeable.
We picked up bites of it with handfuls of supple flatbread called malooga, freshly fired in a tandoor-like oven. Record-album-sized sheets are $1.50.
Gallaba with hummus ($9.99) was a stew atop the usual tahini-enriched chickpea puree. On this night it was veal, but it can also be lamb or chicken. Nickel-sized chunks of meat simmered with fresh tomato in a light curry-scented sauce made this plate of hummus into a meal.
Besides the fassolia bean dishes, vegetarians might go for dabeekh ($9.99), traditional vegetable stew. Potatoes, tomatoes, zucchini, carrots and peas cooked in a savory gravy, toothsome but not falling-apart soft, were comforting spooned out onto rice ($3). That rice was indistinguishable from most Indian offerings, spice-scented basmati flecked with the golden-orange grains meant to mimic saffron.
The menu’s baked fish ($15) is a whole pompano that’s butterflied open before getting a spice paste rubdown and a ride on the grill. It arrived piled with chopped onion, fresh tomato, chopped cilantro and lime wedges. After a fresh citrus spritz, I found the crispy-edged fish moist down to the bone, good to eat skin and all.
Haneeth roasted lamb ($11.99) was pieces of bone-in lamb simply seasoned and roasted, served plain on a plate. It was certainly tender enough, but its simplicity made it seem unseasoned beside its racier tablemates.
Grilled lamb chops ($15) won me over. Sprinkled with a mixture of spices – clove, black pepper, cardamom and more – they were charred quickly, keeping the inside juicy and faintly pink, served with chopped onion, tomato, and lime wedges. At two chops to a plate with rice, this was a reasonably priced lamb excursion.
Fahsah ($9.99), lamb stew with fenugreek sauce, is the national dish of Yemen. It’s deeply flavored with more of those Indian warming spices, and topped with an ivory cap of whipped fenugreek sauce, light but creamy, with fenugreek’s maple inflection.
Chicken on coal ($20) was a whole chicken butterflied open and grilled before being cut up with shears for serving. Some of the thinner parts were dried out, but the thicker parts and skin rewarded chewing.
The Yemeni dessert masoob ($10) is a mixture of bread chopped with dates and honey, aromatic with sesame oil. It’s covered in cream, drizzled with more honey, and sprinkled with black cumin seed for an exotic rice pudding effect.
After years of looking for a place to share a meal with my Yemeni neighbors, the food and surroundings at Al Mandy were a welcome introduction. There’s nothing fancy here, just home cooking from people who have come a long way to be here. Flavors a world away, just down the street.
(Note: During Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, May 6 to June 5, the restaurant's hours will be noon to midnight.)
Al Mandy Restaurant – 7 plates (out of 10)
Location: 797 Broadway, 853-1090
Hours: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily (noon-midnight May 6 to June 5).
Prices: breakfast $6.99-$9.99, sandwiches $5.99-$7.99, entrees $7.49-$19.99
Atmosphere: scruffy to-go restaurant with seating
Wheelchair accessible: yes
Gluten-free: none offered