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.
176 Atlantic Ave, between Clinton & Court St, 718-834-9533
mmmmmmm… I think I need to plan a field trip. 🙂