Yemeni food is Middle Eastern food like you've never had it before. This is not humus and falafel, fatoush salad or shawarma-style Near Eastern cuisine. Yemeni is hearty, stick-to-your-ribs, southern comfort, done Arabian-style.
Two of my favorite Middle Eastern dishes come from this canon of Arabian Gulf-cooking: chargrilled chicken muthbi and a rich bean dish called fassoulia.
Muthbi is traditionally cooked on hot stones that are super-heated over a bed of charcoal on the roadsides, but here it is more often cooked over a hot barbecue flame. The chicken is simply seasoned, letting the smoke act as its primary flavoring agent. It is then served over an intoxicating plate of spiced rice along with a small side of cucumber yogurt, some raw onions, and a dish of tangy, spicy chile and tomato salsa.
Sounds simple. It is. But the trick of this dish is in the eating of it.
You need to pull a piece of the steaming hot chicken from its bone, splash on some tomato sauce and yogurt, take a bite of raw onion, then scoop the sauced chicken and a small pile of rice into your mouth, using only your fingers. This is a messy meal that taps into primal instincts and deep pleasures that are simply not attainable when using a fork and knife.
Fassoulia, on the other hand, comes with a side of warm bread with which to eat it, but it is no less hearty or satisfying. The thick, meaty fava beans are slow-cooked then sauteed with onions, tomatoes, garlic, and a bit of dried ground okra, a signature ingredient in Yemeni cooking.
I love beans. Chickpeas, limas, black beans, or pintos: They're all good to me. But fassoulia, finished off with a squeeze of lemon or lime, is my absolute favorite.
This week, I found both at a little corner of Arabia on East Apache Boulevard in Tempe: Mandi House Restaurant.
The unassuming, no-frills restaurant delivered on their promise of Arabian comfort foods, right down to the syrupy sweet glass of cardamon-spiced tea that ended my meal. It was transportive. It was exactly what I was craving, though I didn't know it until after I began to eat. In that way, it was utterly perfect, and it most certainly was the best thing I ate all week.
Keep Phoenix New Times Free... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Phoenix with no paywalls.