Food & Drink
CAB SESSIONS: Notes from a Yemeni Food Pilgrimage to Bay Ridge’s Bab al Yemen
by Lea Faminiano
The problem with being an adventurous eater is that when you ask for restaurant recommendations, you’re probably going to get a bunch for places you’ve already been to. I am constantly on the hunt for a new place to eat to the point where it has become my favorite hobby. I have a Google Map going on with tacks on all the new places I want to check out, I jot recommendations in a notebook every so often, I’m always reading dozens of articles on the “new, hip” places to eat. Once in a while, I’ll survey my social media followers and see what’s up with their palates.
Lately, though, I’ve been getting bored. I’ve been wanting something else – some insight into eateries I’ve never heard of, that I would never go to if it hadn’t come highly recommended by someone. But who would this “someone” be? A friend of friends? A random person on the street?
And then it hit me. I needed to ask someone who knows New York better than anyone else. Who knows this city better than anyone else? Of course. Cab drivers. And so I began to formulate a plan.
A simple plan, really. I get in a cab and ask the driver their favorite place to eat in the city. Get out wherever I need to get out, and go to wherever they say. Whenever I get a free moment. Like a game, I guess. I considered the possibility of getting in a cab and just asking them to actually take me to their favorite place, and then that spawned a whole scenario of creepiness in my mind, striking that idea out fast. I’m not going to set any other rules right now because I hate rules, so for now, that’s the plan. Anyway, here goes.
The funny thing about this is that I don’t take cabs often – I’m kind of known for this, one reason being that with all the eating I do, I’d rather take the free workout and save the extra money (for food, duh). So when I hopped into a cab the other night, I completely forgot about my mission until I was halfway out of the car, and so I spat out my question: “What’s your favorite place to eat at in the city?”
Unfazed, the cab driver simply stated: “Bab al Yemen. Bay Ridge.” And I thanked him, shut the door, and he drove away. I didn’t even get his name. Coincidentally, I had been wanting to go to this place for a while – it’s like God sent a foodie angel in the form of a cab driver to make it happen.
A couple days later, I ended up in the middle of Bay Ridge, sitting at a table at Bab al Yemen. It’s this unassuming little restaurant tucked just off of 4th Avenue. The place opens at 2 pm and we get there at about 2:30 and it’s empty, save for the chef who is standing in the middle of the (somewhat small) space.
He greets us and asks us if we are familiar with Yemeni food, which we’re not, and he goes over the menu, explaining dishes to us and giving recommendations, and he’s super friendly and we end up choosing the lamb segar and curry yaamani and hummus. Everything on the menu looks amazing though, and we’ve already making a mental note of all the dishes I want on my next visit… and we haven’t even had a bite of anything yet.
We order a coffee (Yemeni style – it’s brewed with spices) and the super polite teenage waiter brings out complimentary shai tea, which is both sweet and kind of minty and hot and perfect on a 30 degree day. No utensils are brought out (unless upon request) because you’re supposed to eat Yemeni food with bread as your utensil, as you do with most Middle Eastern food.
And then the bread happens. So everyone knows I have this wheat allergy with which I’ve been very good about and I’ve only intentionally broken my wheat fast once in the past year and three months. Basically, I can’t even touch all-purpose flour without having to be practically bedridden for a couple days, and basically, it sucks (my advice: don’t have a wheat allergy). But then this bread comes out. It’s the size of a pizza pie and is both soft and crispy at the same time and it has those bread bubbles and it’s just perfect. And I’m thinking to myself that I just need to use the utensils and I don’t need to eat the bread, but the little allergy devil on my shoulder just clouds my logic and resolve and is basically screaming (I can’t believe I’m going to say this) YOLO and it’s so annoying that I just give in and eat the bread. Food first, that’s my motto.
The dishes we order don’t look like they will fill us up, because they kind of look like glorified fancy dips, however we are extremely full at the end of our meal (probably partly due to all that bread). The curry yaamani with hummus is made up of sauteed cubed chicken, tomatoes, onions, and curry sauce – the menu says it’s “drizzled with hummus” but it’s really lying on a plate full of fluffy, creamy hummus that was a perfect complement to the hot chicken and curry flavor.
Our favorite part of the meal was definitely the lamb segar – a plate of minced tender lamb with sauteed tomatoes and onions. The menu states that it comes with rice, but for some reason it didn’t for our lunch. It was super flavorful and I think next time I would order it with the hummus just because that hummus was so delicious!
The chef comes out at the end of the meal – no one else is there, so he has time on his hands – asking us if we enjoyed our meal, which we did. You know a place is good when you already want to go back after you just left. I’d love to go for dinner at a busier time to see how the atmosphere is – and I also have my eye on that Yemeni omelette and the lamb masloog. Bay Ridge is probably out of the way for most people, but if you have the time, I highly recommend going, and bringing a bunch of friends so you can share all the amazing sounding dishes.
So, Cab Sessions I: a huge success! To the driver who gave me the recommendation that sent me on a Yemeni food pilgrimage to Bay Ridge – my stomach is ever so grateful.
Bab al Yemen
413 Bay Ridge Avenue