Food fit for the Queen of Sheba at North Carolina’s first Yemeni restaurant
Restaurateurs don’t always like being written about in their first week, but Max Alshayf expressed no hesitancy on the Monday of his soft opening at Greensboro’s FantaCity shopping center. Delighted I was writing about Sana’a, North Carolina’s first Yemeni restaurant, he served food so tasty I didn’t miss the Arabic coffee he promised to have soon.
“Please tell everyone,” he said as I dug into my haneeth, delicately spiced fresh young lamb slow-roasted to such falling-off-the-bone tenderness you could eat it with a spoon. Or as I did, with a piece of bread used to pluck juicy pink mutton off a steaming rib.
Told I love sheep and goat, he promised a second lamb dish and more bread, apologizing for having bought the latter at Super G. “Soon, we’ll be baking our own.” he said before laughingly telling the kitchen “make sure the agdah is really good, so this man doesn’t burn us!”
He didn’t just want a good write-up. My friend Christine had rhapsodized about her Sunday lunch at Sana’a. Alshayf said he wasn’t open then, but had invited Christine and her boyfriend Jeff to sit and eat when they peered in.
Christine said they loved their food, which included lamb mandi and beef haneeth. Haneeth and mandi are two traditional Yemeni dishes finding favor in North America. Both typically consist of meat, spices and rice, with the difference being that haneeth is pressure-cooked, whether in a taboon clay oven with an airtight seal or something more modern, whereas mandi is boiled with spices and then roasted. Glancing at Sana’a’s temporary menu, I saw whole and half mandi chicken, but other than some excellent hommus and baba ganouj, I filled up on lamb.
The second dish was the aforementioned agdah. Googling indicates this Arabic word, also Romanized as ogdah, means “knot” and refers to a thick spicy stew in which such vegetables as tomatoes, potatoes, carrots and zucchini “tie together” shredded lamb, chicken or fish. This, even more than haneeth, is meant to be eaten with bread as a utensil, which is why they brought a second platter of salūf (unleavened wheat flatbread). The agdah, while very different from my lamb haneeth, was great even with store-bought bread. I can’t wait to have it once they start baking their own.
Another friend recommended I ask Alshayf for a sample platter of all their various kabobs. That will have to wait. Although I suspect Alshayf’s are great, kabobs aren’t as uniquely Yemeni as haneeth and agdah. I’m also interested in their breakfast, an important meal in Yemen that includes eggs, dates and sautéed lamb liver.
I also want to try the fish, and I really must sample saltah, often called the national dish of Yemen. Wikipedia indicates this is a brown meat stew with fenugreek and sahawiq (a spicy chutney or salsa), accompanied by rice, potatoes, or scrambled eggs. Alshayf indicated that he has a wide variety of vegetarian dishes, but before I could inquire, his graphic designers showed up for a consultation about the final menu, and then my lamb arrived, steaming and savory, and my mouth wasn’t interested in talking.
Alshayf took my phone number and said he’d call me once he was prepared to start serving whole lamb with rice, something which I and my lamb-loving friends are eager to try, possibly for my upcoming birthday.
This article’s title refers to the tradition that Bilqis, the Quranic and Biblical Queen of Sheba, ruled an area including modern Yemen before marrying King Sulaymān (the Old Testament’s Solomon). Many scholars believe that Sheba was the South Arabian kingdom of Saba, centered around the Yemeni oasis of Marib (in the Western classical world, this country was called Arabia Felix or “fertile Arabia,” differentiating it from Arabia Deserta).
The restaurant Sana’a takes its name from one of the oldest cities in the world, Yemen’s historical capital. In the aftermath of the 2014 conflict, the seat of the country’s internationally recognized government moved to the port city of Aden. Alshayf told me that many Yemenis his age support this change. “The Old City is big and beautiful, but very tribal, and we are not so much that anymore.”
Sana’a is at 4939 West Market Street, Suite 2108, (336) 897-0376. Alshayf promises an official grand opening soon, “with free samples!” so that visitors can taste how Yemeni cuisine differs from its neighbors. “There are 18 Middle Eastern countries, all unique,” he said. “Most people in North Carolina haven’t had anything like ours.”