This is the second of a series in which Katie Robbins meets the personalities behind the city’s most vibrant ethnic restaurants. Read part one here.
Akram Nassir knows Atlantic Avenue. He easily spouts off information about shifts in demographics (“It’s changed a lot. It used to be all Lebanese and Syrian,” he says. “It’s all Yemeni people now”) and patterns of store ownership (“This block alone was probably owned by one person, and he sold it off.”) He rattles off the numbers of the various buildings he lived in growing up and where he lives now (“Always on the Avenue,” he says.)
Atlantic Avenue knows Akram Nassir. Its residents have watched him grow from the little boy who used to run home from PS 29 to play at his family’s restaurants to the young family man who now runs his own.
Akram Nassir is the scion of Atlantic Avenue.
Together with his uncle, Al Subadi, Nassir runs Yemen Café, the restaurant that Al Subadi and Nassir’s father Hatem opened in 1986. It was by no means the family’s first foray into the business. The stretch of Atlantic between Henry and Court Streets has been known for its swath of Middle Eastern restaurants for over forty years, and Nassir is the progeny of one of its first families.
His grandfather and uncles first came from Yemen to New York in the 60s and quickly opened the first of the family’s restaurants, Adnan. They’d cooked in Saudi Arabia and in other Middle Eastern countries, so it made sense to bring that food to their new home. His grandfather found success, and so other family-run establishments soon followed—Almontaser, the Atlantic House, Moroccan Star (whose lamb steak the New York Times, in a 1984 article, referred to as “a juicy, intensely flavorful slab of meat”), and Near East Restaurant. In 1977 Hatem left his job at Windows on the World because the presence of alcohol on the menu violated his religious beliefs, and together with his brother Al Subadi opened a restaurant of their own called Sanaa. A write-up of the 5th Annual Atlantic Antic in 1979 praises the brothers for the “verbal gusto” with which they sold lamb meat in front of one their restaurants.
When the brothers opened Yemen Café, however, it marked a departure from the kind of food the family had been serving since coming to this country. The previous Atlantic eateries had all served European, North African, and other Middle Eastern cuisines. “The food was more modernized,” explains Akram Nassir. With this new restaurant they were for the first time going to offer “straight Yemeni food,” and when they did, customers responded immediately, Nassir tells me. “People were in shock.”
I certainly was the first time I wandered into Yemen Café a year and a half ago. The flavors are familiar. Spices like cumin, fenugreek, and coriander make appearances in ways reminiscent of other Middle Eastern and even South Asian cuisines, but the way they are used in the Yemeni dishes sets them apart. As Nassir says, “Their cooking is completely different. More spicy. In Yemen there is no spicy. They eat spicy on the side.”
Beyond commenting on the lack of piquant burn to the restaurant’s dishes, Nassir is hard pressed to describe the flavor behind each item. When I ask him to describe the taste of a lamb curry, he stops and thinks for a moment, licking his lips slightly and looking up at the ceiling, recalling the taste of the familiar food. And yet, perhaps like being asked to describe one’s own features, it is too close for him to explain. “I don’t know,” he says, giving up eventually. “To me a piece of meat has flavor. It just tastes good.”
He then asks me how I would describe the food that I’ve tasted at Yemen, and I think back to the number of dishes I’ve sampled from the menu, which Nassir says hasn’t changed since the restaurant first opened 23 years ago. There is the fassolia, a kind of hash of tomatoes, white kidney beans, and onions, savory and satisfying like a very thick chili. Then there are the eggs, served scrambled with large chunks of sautéed tomato and onions, similar to the egg and tomato dishes eaten in China. Hummus, babaghanouj, and foul make appearances as well, and are fine representations of these dishes. All of these are scooped up with bits of bread, torn from the large round loaves that accompany meals here. Served piping hot from the clay oven, the bread is chewy in the center, with brown crispy air pockets on the surface, rivaling the best toothy Neapolitan pizza crust. “That bread is so good,” says Nassir.