For most of us, far-flung travel is a thing of the past for now. But there has always been a more accessible form of adventure and discovery awaiting in our own backyards: dining out. Exploring a culture through its food, markets and restaurants is a rewarding, low-barrier endeavor that helps break down stubborn biases.
One area of Cleveland that demands consideration is the west-side enclave known as “Little Arabia,” an area of Lorain Avenue loosely situated between W. 130th and W. 117th known for its Arabic restaurants and shops. While I have been to many Arab-American spots in that area over the years, I don’t recall any that specifically identified as Yemeni. One such place opened up last fall called Yemen Gate, and the dishes prepared there, according to staff, are similar to what you would enjoy in homes throughout that Middle Eastern nation.
Upon arrival, I was immersed in the sights, smells and sounds of another place. The aromas of fresh-baked bread, exotic spices and savory stews hung in the air. While waiting to talk to the host, I watched small cauldrons of still-bubbling soups, heaping platters of roasted meats and rice and bicycle tire-size flatbreads make their way from the kitchen to large, eager families.
With considerable help from the staffer I placed an order to go. While I’d much rather enjoy this communal-style dining experience with a close group of friends or family in the restaurant, that’s not currently an option. The good news is that this food travels remarkably well owing to its preparation.
That sizzling pot was filled with saltah, a savory root vegetable stew made from lamb stock. I was encouraged to order the fahsah ($11.95), which was described to me as traditional saltah that is fortified with shredded lamb meat. Back home, the brew was practically still simmering. The lamb meat was so tender and fragmented that it was one with the broth. The flavors were warm, earthy and citrusy, likely from green cardamom.
Both the saltah and fahsah come with rashoush, a heavenly flat bread that is baked in a cylindrical clay oven. Like a goliath-size naan, the bread is pocked, blistered and puffy from the screaming-hot tannour oven. That crispy exterior gives way to a chewy-soft interior. Of course, the bread is the perfect accompaniment to the saucy, savory stews.
The balance of the meal was a blissful feast of warmly spiced, incredibly comforting and exceedingly delicious meats that are marinated and either slow-braised or expertly grilled before being piled atop heaps of fluffy steamed rice. In the lamb haneeth ($19.95), bone-in meat is seasoned and braised for hours and hours until it is a soft, blubbering but still pleasantly gamy delight. Bone-in chicken gets a similar treatment in the chicken mandi ($14.95), the skin stained a deep orange hue from turmeric. The bones slide out of the long-cooked meat with a gentle tug, leaving behind deeply perfumed and impossibly tender breast, thigh and drum meat.
After hearing the description of those two definitive dishes, I nearly skipped over the grilled chicken ($13.95), despite an enthusiastic endorsement from the order-taker. Compared to those other two, the preparation seemed unexciting – not to mention the fact that I likely ordered enough food for a family reunion. Of course, the opposite proved true. That half chicken managed to outshine its siblings thanks to real live-fire grilling over charcoal, which charred the exterior in all the right ways. Beneath the dark spice-singed skin is juicy meat with woodsy smoke flavor.
All of the meats are served on aromatic long-grained rice that is buttery and mildly spiced, allowing the flavors of the meat to shine. Every other dish is well-spiced, but none is “spicy.” That’s the job of the Yemeni chutney, a salsa-like mix of tomatoes, garlic, chiles and herbs that is as bold as it is bright.
I can’t begin to imagine what Yemeni Americans are dealing with given the perilous conditions back home in the war-torn country. But I expect that a meal at Yemen Gate with their family might offer a small but vital source of relief and comfort. For others, a visit to the restaurant might help to put things in perspective, serving as a reminder to appreciate what we have rather than focus on what we’ve lost. It did for me.
11901 Lorain Ave., Cleveland