Report on Yemeni's [San Francisco]
- barelydigestible Jun 6, 2014 04:08 PM
Just got back from Yemenis, with a group of us who seek out spicy regional/ethnic neighborhood restaurants for the occasional Friday lunch. Had heard generally positive noises from two like-minded friends, and happy to report that it was in that vein a generally positive experience.
Ambience is welcoming, well-lit and cheery with ample tables (for lunch anyway - I have heard from a friend who's been by several times that dinnertime can occasionally be crowded and noisy and hard to get attention for securing a table). Service was very prompt and courteous; we were seated immediately and our hostess was quick to come by for appetizer and tea orders.
Food was generally good, with a few very good to exceptional items I'd return specifically for. Most everything tasted like very fresh ingredients were being used and that it was same-day cooked, not rewarmed. We stuck largely to the traditional Yemen dishes, especially looking forward to the Salteh. Very tasty, deeply seasoned meat with potatoes that were well-stewed but not overcooked, and a good layer of the traditional fenugreek maraq froth on top. I'd only wished for a bit more of this, and perhaps a bit hotter (I've read but not experienced that some versions can amp up the heat a bit here). We ordered Malawah bread which was very good - strongly recommend an order of that or the Tanour bread to accompany as you really want to scoop up stew with the soft bread. One bowl of Salteh was enough for two large guys for lunch - given apps - but we wished we'd ordered two as we kept returning for more bites.
The Sanaa Meza, mixed appetizers, was overall good with exceptional baba ghannouge. I'm not big on the bland, viscid versions I've generally received so I tend to avoid this dish - but it was eye-opening, perfectly balanced with a bit of smoke, good garlic and what we thought was a touch of cinnamon. Cooked right with just enough oil so that it wasn't slimy or runny, just perfect for the accompanying flatbread. Yoghurt salad was delicious if simple. Hummus was fine, taboullah to me was very unbalanced in the direction of parsley and garlic - I couldn't detect any bulghur or other grains at all so it ended up coming off as a slightly dry and gritty chimmichurri. This may be the traditional Yemeni way, not sure about that, and ok so far as it went mixed with other mezes on flatbread; but I won't be ordering it as a standalone salad anytime. Only two small dolmas (which I appreciate since huge versions can lose the grape leaf-to-rice balance; the grape leaves were very fresh and it was clearly handmade same day, without the left-standing oiliness and mushy rice you get with horrid prepack dolmas - nice lemony edge to the rice inside.
We only had two little falafel balls to share (not sure if they came with the mezes or were compliments as I dont recall ordering them) - man we wished we had more. We've all had meh falafel but these really ramped up the spice in a well-balanced way, and we remarked that they were literally juicy, not just not-dry. I'd personally go back just to get falafel takout here with a side of the baba gannoush for a quickie lunch - possibly the best falafel I've had in SF (but others feel free to one-up me as I'm not a true falafel geek)
Mandi and Hameed, two additional traditional Yemeni dishes (in this case baked and roasted lamb versions respectively) were a bit disappointing - pleasing, well-balanced, well-cooked, but not as deeply flavorful as we'd hoped, especially compared to the Saltah. Good dishes for a spouse or child who may not be as in to spice.
We also had a Shish Taouk - not one of the traditional dishes but it looked like a lot of their takeout business especially was conventional Shawarma and Shish. To me it was at best adequate; a bit on the dry side and not inspired in any way I could find. To be fair we only had the one order, but I've made tastier versions myself and I've definitely had better elsewhere - I'd be interested if others disagree and could point me to what non-Yemeni-specific food they've liked here as I'd like to make it a more regular spot, especially if they've been doing it as take-out.
Overall, I'll be going back and it will definitely be for the Saltah and the mezes, and maybe to see if the falafel is as good in a wrap as I recall here.