Growing up just footsteps from Atlantic Avenue in downtown Brooklyn—typically considered the border between Brooklyn Heights to the north and Cobble Hill to the south—I was spoiled by the wealth of exemplary Middle Eastern eats available along the bustling thoroughfare: in just a few minutes, I could make the rounds between Sahadi's, the unparalleled imported and gourmet foods store, where I'd pick up a bag of Turkish apricots or a wedge of chocolate-laced halvah; Oriental Pastry and Grocery, where my favored snack was a triangle of honeyed baklava; and Damascus Bakery, supplier of much of the city's pita bread.
Another one of my favorite spots was Yemen Café, a super-casual, super-affordable restaurant that nevertheless takes its food dead seriously, and a place I still make the trek to even though I no longer live in the 'hood. I ate meat a lot more often when I was younger, and what I remember best from those days was Yemen Café's exemplary haneez, a slow-roasted, fork-tender hunk of perfectly seasoned lamb served over rice and vegetables. But these days, I tend to gravitate towards the restaurant's excellent, nourishing vegetarian appetizers—and I don't miss the meat at all.
For starters, there's the restaurant's excellent, complimentary whole wheat flatbread, rushed to the table at the beginning of every meal. The hot, chewy bread is baked inside an oven similar to the tandoor used to bake naan, and the bread's taste is similar, albeit with a crispier, crunchier bottom crust. It's the perfect vehicle for scooping up the dips and stews to come.
I love baba ghanoush, that smoky, creamy eggplant dip, and Yemen Café's version ($8) is one of my favorites. Rich and silky, it's topped with plenty of fruity olive oil and a healthy dash of bright, earthy paprika.
Foul translates to fava beans, and it's often served at Middle Eastern restaurants as a cold salad accented with fresh parsley and red and green bell pepper. But at Yemen Café, foul ($8) comes to the table as a hot, bubbling stew, in which whole and mashed favas mingle with sautéed onions and tomatoes in a thick, aromatic gravy.
Another tasty bean option comes in the form of fassolia ($8), a thick room-temperature dish of creamy gigante white beans baked with tomatoes, onion, green peppers and not a small amount of fresh cilantro. It's super light and flavorful, and makes a nice complement to the heavier fava beans.
You've gotta be intrigued by a dish simply called egg ($8, pictured at top)—or at least I was. What arrived were soft scrambled eggs folded through with sautéed tomatoes, green peppers and cilantro, a dish almost identical to Spanish revueltos. The well-seasoned eggs add some protein heft to a satisfying vegetarian meal.
Yemen Café's ambience recalls that of a cafeteria—the bare tables are dominated by families whose gigging toddlers race around the dining room, and the ice water and sweet mint tea are self-service. The casual atmosphere makes it that much easier to focus on the food here, which is soulful, delicious and a great bargain.