If you like lamb, have number 16, he says, grinning. That’s what everyone likes first time they come here.
Haneed lamb it is, then. Unsurprisingly for a local Yemeni menu, meat dominates and lamb in particular. Some names are faniliar, others less so: so you can have it minced with tomatoes and onions, as soughar or borma, saltah or fahsah, or as the more familiar mandi.
Owner Mohmud’s welcome is one of the things which brings me back to Bab Al-Yemen. The restaurant has sat here on Clare Road for well over a decade, and you get the distinct impression he enjoys the everyday pleasure of feeding people.
The haneed is another variation on the ‘lamb and rice’ theme popular on Yemeni menus. That rice is very well done, aromatic with meat juices slowly seeping through ths grains. It’s dishes like this, and its cousins, which mean plates like this are my current go-to for guaranteed sustaining, comforting meals. The meat is every bit as tender as you’d want and expect.
Nan (‘Yemeni style!’) arrives from the tandoor: huge, blistered, speckled with black onion seeds, and just doughy enough for that satisfying tear.
It comes with houlba, a thin paste of coriander, mustard, green chilli and fenugreek. It’s arresting stuff. Even more arresting? The fact it all costs just £9.
Second time in, I ask about the huge foil-covered pot I can see over Mohmud’s shoulder in the kitchen. That’s the lamb he says, delighted I’ve heard of mandi, and tells me it is especially good today. Inevitably he is soon bringing over a well-loaded tray.
As I wait the little counter terminal beeps often, as riders come and go with their reference codes (a hill to die on: if you love somewhere, think about getting their phone number and see if they’ll take your order. Don’t pay those rapacious bastards), but this deserves to be eaten at its best. It’s quite the spread on this grey, squally, rain-spattered day.
We start with lamb’s liver. You want it spicy? he asks, and I get that beaming smile and the approving nod and order the salted ayran as a precaution. It’s faultless offal cooking, the little dice tossed with green peppers, onions and tomatoes: tender yet earthy and almost sweet, and a galaxy away from the grainy, greying slabs of your memories. It’s quietly, unassumingly lovely.
That mandi- lamb, on the bone, on the bone, always on the bone- comes with a little tomato-based vegetable stew and green chill dressing. The choice of rice or spaghetti is yours- I hadn’t realised the importance of pasta in Yemeni and Somali cooking (the neighbouring countries separated only by the Gulf of Aden) until I started this exploration- but I can never resist the way the meat and rice mingle, or the way that steaming that tender young meat means something consistently compelling.
Falafel are forgettable but not the lamb. Soughar is little cubes of fillet, stir-fried with tomato and onion and garlic. Ask for it spicy – you’ll get that huge smile, as a bonus – and you’ll find yourself wondering at how unpretentious and wholesome this cooking is, and what what a lot £7 buys you here.
A whole fish comes in its foil wrap straight from the tandoor. It’s impeccably done, the backbone lifting out with ease and the spice-rubbed flesh flaking away deftly, and at £11 it’s the second most expensive thing on the regular menu, only topped by the whole roast chicken at £14. Of course, there’s no booze on offer, though a few glasses of Tangeaux d’Orange are amusingly assertive. However, I’m charmed by their impertinence.
Bab Al-Yemen is another Grangetown fixture in an area that is relentlessly rewarding to explore. That’s if you’re looking for flavour and value, of course. Most mains are around the £7.50 – £9.00 range, and at the risk of bludgeoning the point, you will struggle to spend £15 here and leave without leftovers.
If you embrace that, you’ll not only enjoy the experience and, perhaps, broaden your ‘eating education’: but you’ll get to know this city’s food in a way many overlook. That’s their loss. Don’t let it be yours, too.
132 Clare Road, Grangetown, Cardiff CF11 6RU
Open 7 days a week, 12pm til late
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This blog is a very simple thing.
I won’t try to sell you any hand lotion, exercise programmes, coffee syrups or Patagonian nose flutes. You won’t find tips on dating, ‘wellness’ or yoga mats.
I write because I love it (and food, as indicated by my increasing girth). Greed happens to be my Deadly Sin of choice, but at least it is never shy of providing me with subject matter.
A simple thing, then: all you get is me wittering on semi-coherently about places I’ve eaten at; hence a ‘restaurant blog’ rather than a ‘food blog’, although there are a few recipes scattered throughout.
From mezze to Michelin ‘fine dining’ and all points in between.