For a decade, I approached Yemeni cuisine as a tourist, despite the fact that Buffalo’s Yemeni population has centuries-old roots in the Lackawanna steelworks after World War I.
Then I met Faress Saleh. His family have been part of the fabric of western New York for a century and posed for a portrait as one of the families of Yemeni steelworkers frozen in time in photographer Milton Rogovin’s famous book “The Forgotten Ones”. .
An IT professional and sometimes football coach, Saleh took the time to explain the basics and then the intricacies of Yemeni cuisine as it is expressed in Buffalo-area restaurants. He also patiently enlightened the culture and customs of the Yemeni-American diaspora so that I too could settle in and feel the vibe, as the kids say.
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If you’re not lucky enough to know such a gracious ambassador, let Faress help you dig into the Yemeni menu.
Almandi does not publish a menu, but if you look around there should be some laminated menus at the register for you to look at. Tell the cashier what you want, and whether it’s to sit down or to go. If you eat there, choose a table.
Soon, a cup of soup for every diner should arrive via the waiter. Maraq means broth in Arabic, and Yemenis serve it as an appetizer. At Almandi, it’s a rousing chicken broth, tangy and buzzing with cumin, turmeric and other warming spices. A cup of fresh tomato-based salsa, “sahawig” in Arabic, can liven up soup or whatever you have with its tangy heat.
Another freebie is red tea, available for taking from a percolator across from the register. It’s flavored with cardamom and has enough black tea to make Monster drinks seem soft, as well as sugar dunes.
Almandi opens at 10am, except Tuesdays when it is closed. A selection of Yemeni dishes for breakfast are served until lunch and are not guaranteed for dinner. They include fassolia ($7.99), a vegan red bean stew with tomatoes and chili peppers that’s a hearty animal-free meal, especially with a disk the size of a hubcap of freshly made pita bread (1, $50).
Kibda ($9.99) is most definitely diced lamb or beef liver sautéed with tomatoes, chilies, herbs and spices. It’s one of the few liver preparations I’ve come across that effectively tames the flavor of sucking a penny, making it one of my favorite Yemeni dishes.
Chicken gallaba over hummus ($10.99) is another, combining the savory possibilities of sautéed chicken with tomatoes and the earthy Arabic soul food aspects of soothing mashed chickpeas and tahini. Again, bread is needed to complete the mission. The fetid fava beans, stewed with garlic and cumin, served over hummus ($7.99), are another vegan gem.
Yemeni stews come to the table bubbling in battered black cauldrons that look like they’ve done shifts on the Bethlehem Steel hearth. Saltah ($9.99) is a vegetable stew of squash, carrots, onions and more in a flavorful vegan broth. Fasah ($11.99), its meaty sibling, has cooked beef or lamb at its heart.
Both arrive topped with a creamy mousse that’s actually made with fenugek, the vaguely flavored spice of maple.
Lamb haneeth ($14.99) is the pride of Almandi Restaurant. This is bone-in lamb that has been braised in the oven in a covered container so that the meat becomes silky and melts into the rice base. There’s also a famous chicken haneeth ($8.99), bone-in chicken given the same tenderizing treatment.
This is where I should mention that in Yemeni culture it is customary to eat with your hands. So if a group of young men are eating handfuls of lamb and rice, they’re not being rude, they’re just home. If you want plastic plates and cutlery, ask for them.
Other entrees include Charcoal Chicken ($20/$10), spatchcocked bird, seasoned and spread on a charcoal grill until done. There’s also a fish version ($14.99), listed as “baked fish.”
A homemade dessert is fatah ($8.99). It’s a Levantine delight of old chopped pita bread, clarified butter, honey and canned cream, sprinkled with nigella seeds, which taste like sesame seeds crossed with cumin.
While eating in the main dining room, you may notice the absence of Yemeni women. Almandi’s building included a family room, where women who want to eat out, but don’t want to eat with strangers, can have a private family dinner. Due to the culture, most customers will be men who don’t have anyone to cook for them, Faress explained.
That said, women are of course welcome and served on the public side of the restaurant.
Over the past few years, hard-working families in the Yemeni community of Buffalo have invested in their restaurant so more people can get the home-cooked meals they love.
If you want to join them and grab a table at Almandi, the door is open.
Almandi (Al Mandy) Restaurant
Location: 797 Broadway, 716-853-1090.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday to Monday; closed on Tuesdays.
Price: sandwiches $5.99 to $7.99, lunches $7.99 to $10.99, entrees $8.99 to $20.
Atmosphere: hungry guys talking.
Wheelchair accessible: yes.
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