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.
Yemen Café, though, is known for its lamb. From the loubia, which the menu describes as a Yemeni risotto to my personal favorite the fatah with lamb, a sort of meat and stuffing dish, in which sliced bread is soaked in lamb gravy and topped with tender morsels of perfectly gamey meat, each of Yemen's lamb dishes mediates the richness of the protein with a perfect pairing of carbs. While he doesn't spend much time in the kitchen, Nassir knows how to prepare many of the dishes, particularly the popular haneez, a slow roasted lamb, and the salta, a stew of root vegetables and fenugreek, which arrives at the table bubbling in a cast iron pot with a side of fall-off-the-bone lamb and bread for soaking it all up. Nassir is particularly proud of this one, "The New York Times called it volcanic salta," he tells me.
Nassir leaves most of the cooking to his relatives. "Everyone in the kitchen is family members," he says, "We don't hire other people." He spends most of his time in the front of house, chatting people up. Even as I sit and talk to him, he regularly interrupts himself to greet each person who enters, reassuring them that he'll be by soon to catch up. "That guy's waiting for me to come and talk to him," he says, pointing to a man in a Yankees cap eating a steaming bowl of salta.
Nassir learned the restaurant business as if through osmosis. "This is my home," he says of Yemen Café. He always stopped in on his way home from school. "I would just come in, and I would pick up a dish and put it over there and go upstairs. I never considered it a business. I just considered it a family."
In school he loved science and art, but he never doubted that he'd follow the family trade. "No matter what I wanted to do, this in the blood," he says. Still, that draw hasn't kept him from exploring other options. He's worked in the oil business and as a travel agent. He describes these other pursuits as scratching an itch. "I go get satisfied and then come back here."
Because he hates the cold, Nassir travels every winter throughout the Middle East, always stopping in Yemen to visit several of his ten siblings who live there, and his father, now in his 80s, who retired there several years ago.
Although he officially took the reins in the late-90s to run Yemen Café with his uncle, Nassir still thinks of it as his father's place. "I never considered that I took over. Even now. He's still the man."
His father may still be the man, but Nassir fills the role well in his absence. He has his own family now—three children ages 18 months to 7 years, who now run around the restaurant the way he used to. "My daughter likes the chicken curry," he says, "and my son likes the lamb." The kids come down to the restaurant in the mornings and occasionally help out in small ways, but he tries not to pressure them to follow in his footsteps. "Time will tell. It's up to them if they want to stay here or not. They could become an astronaut or a doctor; whatever they want."
Whatever they ultimately decide to do, his children are experiencing a childhood not unlike Nassir's own. Just as his father Hatem enthusiastically sold lamb to the neighborhood for the Avenue's big street festival, his son now caters to the regulars who frequent the restaurant. "The restaurant is like a train stop. People come eat and talk and go. I see their faces. I get to know them, and I talk to them. I talk to them about where they come from."
Most of all though, he makes sure that Yemen Café concentrates on what it does best. "We stick to the food. This is our trade. We know what people like." Spoken like a true scion.
Yemen Café 176 Atlantic Ave, between Clinton & Court St, 718-834-9533