Traditionally, New York City’s Yemeni restaurants have been concentrated along Atlantic Avenue in Downtown Brooklyn and scattered across Bay Ridge among Lebanese, Egyptian, and Turkish establishments. But as I discovered recently, others can be found in unexpected places — like Harlem, where Yemeni food is enjoyed not just by immigrants from the Arab Peninsula, but also by locals who eat halal.
The neighborhood has long been home to Yemeni-owned newsstands and 99-cent stores, “but never to a restaurant,” according to the current owner of Queen Sheeba, who goes by Adel. “The neighborhood needed a Middle Eastern restaurant.” And so, in 1994 his former partner decided to open one on the corner of 147th Street and Amsterdam under the name Queen Sheeba. Nearly 30 years later, that restaurant now serves one of the city’s best baba ganoush — even if it’s since moved six blocks away to its current location on 141st Street.
Not to be confused with the Ethiopian restaurant Queen of Sheba in Hell’s Kitchen, this restaurant is also named after Sheba, a figure who was born in Saba, the capital of Yemen. She’s revered in Ethiopian, Jewish, Islamic, and Christian scriptures as the bringer of spices to King Solomon, thus becoming the figurative mother of Middle Eastern cuisine.
The dining room at the 141st Street location is boxy and bright blue, in a shade rarely seen in the sky except for right before sunset. In the evening an older man stands behind a counter that offers a few notions like aspirin and antihistamines in addition to breads, and sometimes pre-prepared meals that cabbies can dash in and grab. Place your order with him, and take your seat along one of the tables separated from the kitchen by a carved wooden screen.
Definitely start with that baba ganoush ($7), which is both pale and unusually smoky, laced with so much raw garlic it detonates in your mouth. It’s fortunate, then, that the dip comes with giant round breads called khobz, made on the premises and charred in places, which can be used to attenuate the baba’s strong flavors. These breads are also useful for sopping up fava bean foul (pronounced “fool,” $8), an earthy legume stew as cherished in Yemen as in Egypt. It’s one of many worthwhile vegetarian options on the menu, including an omelet filled with tomatoes, onions, and other vegetables that does a convincing imitation of a diner’s Denver omelet.
Another of the restaurant’s garlicky vegetable masterpieces is molokhia ($8). The name refers to a river weed that develops a pleasing sliminess and deep green color once cooked. Another worthy soup is shorba — in which coarsely ground barley resembles hamburger. And don’t miss Queen Sheeba’s take on okra, known as bamia. But don’t expect slipperiness, because the recipe is made from baby okras that have been dried in the sun. Once rehydrated, they exhibit a pleasing chewiness and mild flavor.
Aside from the vegetable dishes, a large proportion of the menu focuses on roast and boiled meat and poultry, all simply prepared in a way that recalls the cuisine’s antiquity. No modern sauces or unfamiliar vegetables here, in fact no sauces at all. Yet what could be more pleasing than a plate of darkly roasted chicken (half $10, entire $12), slightly sweet from its spice rub; or the boiled lamb called haneed ($12), a good size portion hacked into pieces, with some marrow bones sticking out?
Both come with a giant plate of flavorful yellow rice and a lightly curried vegetable mixture that’s mainly potatoes, carrots, and tomatoes. Before the main plate arrives, a small salad and cupful of consomme are served, the second so perfect it could have been sent out by a multi-star French chef, or perhaps by one of the fancy new bone broth stores.
A dozen of these main courses are available, most for barely more than $10, and almost all enough for two. My favorite on a pair of visits was kofta kebab ($12), ground lamb formed into patties and grilled until almost charred, then sliced to resemble skinless sausages. These faux sausages can also be made into a sandwich using a smaller flatbread for $5, which must be one of Harlem’s best sandwich deals. To season the sandwich, ask for zhug, a powerful green hot sauce made on the premises.
One thing Queen Sheeba doesn’t have is good salta, a bubbling meat stew served in an iron cauldron with a layer of hilbeh on top, a fluffy emulsion of ground fenugreek seeds that’s probably like nothing you’ve ever seen or tasted before. That hilbeh makes salta taste something like a savory meat milkshake. But when a couple of friends and I ordered the dish, the emulsion had gone missing. At Brooklyn Yemeni restaurants, nothing better reproduces the feeling of sitting around a fire in the desert night than dipping bread in this communal stew. All I can say is that everything else at the restaurant is splendid and affordable, whether you’re craving a meal that’s mainly vegetables or meat. 317 W 141st. St, between Eighth and Edgecombe avenues, Harlem