A Sanaa Dining Guide

More than 7 months after initially posted, I’m happy to say that this has become Sanaa’s most read online restaurant guide. Still, it remains a work in progress; feedback, as always, is strongly encouraged.

Yemeni

Note: Inevitably, the finest Yemeni food will be found in Yemeni homes; generally speaking, the opportunity to enjoy a home-cooked Yemeni meal is not something to be missed (I say this as the son of a southern Italian mother who, objectively speaking, cooks quite well).

Shaibani (various spots along Hadda Street)–There are a few other Yemeni restaurants that top the Shaibanis price-wise, but even they don’t really beat them in terms of food. Prices are reasonable, service is fast enough, and all the Yemeni staples–including excellent fish–are present and delicious. Theres a bevy of “Shaibanis” here in Sanaa, “Shaibani Super Deluxe” across from the Kumaim Center and “Shaibani Modern” a few blocks up Hadda are both good; the Shaibani at the hotel end of Hadda stands out for its comparatively sumptuous atmosphere. In my opinion, the highly subjective title of top Shaibani, however, goes to “Shaibani al-Beik,” which off Hadda street near the Qatar Airways office. Food is constantly on point, and Yemeni notables ranging from Members of Parliament to musical legend Ayoob Tarish have been known to dine there. If a restaurant is good enough for Tarish–who penned the tune for Yemen’s national anthem–its certainly good enough for me.

Al Faqih (road to Wadi Dhahr, after Sanaa University) I think there are other things on the menu but its ultimately all about Salta and Fahsa at Al Faqih. Both are excellent.

Nameless Fahsa place (Souq Ans, next to Halawiat al-Suri) My current favorite Fahsa restaurant. Tons of stuff served piping hot in a clay pot, all of it delicious. Conveniently, its next to Halawiat al-Suri, which is arguably Sanaa’s best place for Halawa.

Khuzi (right off of Iran street) During Ramadan, I had amazing lamb at an iftar hosted by a Yemeni politician. I assumed that it was cooked outside the house, but felt awkward asking about it. It turns out it came from Khuzi. It’s located in a part of Sanaa that’s studded with high-end restaurants, but the place arguably puts its neighbors to shame. In a break from the norm, the owners have actually put a decent amount of effort into decorating the restaurant, pulling from traditional Yemeni themes. Food is stellar from the shafoot to the fattah, but the stand out is the title dish: a young lamb roasted and served over spiced rice.

Matam Taiz (Dairi street) Specialty here is Aseed, one of the weirdest and most delicious elements of Yemeni cuisine. Basically, its a dough/dumpling/doughy dumpling (fish meal is often involved somehow, apparently) covered in gravy that you eat with your middle and index fingers; I swear to God, its far, far better than you’d guess from that description. Either way, absent somebody’s house, Matam Taiz is one of the best places for aseed in Sanaa; they serve it with a quarter of a chicken, so it ends up being a pretty balanced (and filling) meal.

Al Fakher (way up Hadda street, past Caramel, etc) Sanaa’s most exclusive Yemeni restaurant. All the classics are done quite well, served in one of the capital’s quietest and best-decorated dining rooms; there is something quite strange, however, about the western-style place settings…do they really expect anyone to use a fork and spoon to eat Salta? Clientele is almost exclusively drawn from the Yemeni elite, which can make for some decent people watching.

Sharia Matam (‘Restaurant Street,’ near the Tahrir Square post office) As the name may imply, a cul-de-sac of cheap Yemeni restaurants. Many enjoy the hectic atmosphere, some (me) find it a bit grating.

Fish Market (Souq al-Bulayli) Nestled amidst the cragged peaks of the Yemeni Highlands, Sanaa doesn’t really seem like a city that should have a booming fish market. Well, expectations be damned, it does. It may not be as fresh as it is in Mukalla, Hudayda or Aden, but the seafood’s certainly fresh enough; easiest thing to do is to buy one’s choice of fish at the market and have one of the nearby restaurants take care of cooking it.

Fuul Guy I, Fuul Guy II (Old Sanaa, half-way along the road from bab al-sabah to the Saileh)–The average Sanaani eats Fuul or fasoolia (bean dishes) for both the evening and morning meals, so its not surprising that Sanaa’s litered with holes in the wall selling the stuff. Two of the best lie a few hundred feet from each other in the old city. The one on the main road bakes its own bread. The seconds a two minute walk and a left turn on the road before the saileh. Hours are sporadic, the recipe is unorthodox and the guy running the place may very well be mildly insane, but in terms of Yemeni beans, its rather hard to beat.

Baladi Kabobs (Old Sanaa, Square in the Center of Souq al-Milh) I don’t think I’ve ever had ‘bad’ Baladi Kabobs in Sanaa, but the atmosphere of the kabob place (or rather places) in the center of the sprawling souq in Old Sanaa turns eating Yemeni fast food into a nearly transcendent experience.

Bakery (Old Sanaa, by CALES, Souq al-Zumr) Yemeni bread comes in all shapes and sizes, but its almost always excellent. Still, after more than a year in Sanaa, I’m willing to say that this one is the best in the city.

Al Tanoor (Faj Attan) Standard classed up Yemeni food in an unusually nice setting. Haven’t made it to the indoor section of the restaurant yet. Honestly, that may never happen, since the courtyard is so inviting.

Tea by the Mosques (off the Saileh, adjacent to Qubbat al-Mahdi Mosque OR Across from the Great Mosque) Yemeni tea generally comes in two varieties. ‘Shai ma haleeb’ is super-sweet tea with milk; ‘Shai ahmar’ (Red tea, no relation to the powerful tribal family) is the same thing without it. The tea at these two shops isn’t necessarily better in terms of taste, but the atmosphere at both is rather exceptional. The place by Qubbat al-Mahdi is a hole in the wall surrounded by plastic chairs overlooking the Saileh; the place by the Great Mosque is a centuries old, half-decayed building that apparently used to be a hotel.

Tents of Hadramawt (Iran street) Hadramis–those hailing from the the Wadi Hadramawt, a valley in the east of Yemen–are known, among other things, for financial prowess, a traditional aversion to khat, Yemen’s national addiction, and for cooking up delicious grilled meats. This place delivers in terms of the latter.

Other Arab

Lebanese Restaurant (Hadda Street, after the khat souq) This tiny restaurant run by a somewhat gruff guy from Jezzine is probably the best Lebanese restaurant in Sanaa. Very popular with the country’s power class, as the frequent presence of guys with armed qabili guards would suggest.

Yamal al-Sham (Hadda Street, before the khat souq) On-point Syrian food. I’ll concur with a Lebanese expat I met here and highly recommend the shish tawooq. Incredibly friendly staff, free wifi.

Matam Ta-Ta (Hadda Street, before the khat souq) Egyptian food. On point Lamb chops, weak if adequate salads, authentic koshari.

Khan al-Khalili (Hadda Street, near Jandool Supermarket) Compared to Ta-Ta, Khan al-Khalili has a more thorough selection of slightly pricier Egyptian food in a mildly upscale setting. I often see Yemeni businessmen grabbing lunch here; some of my younger Yemeni friends come here for the shisha.

Falafel Place (by the Algeria street/Baghdad street intersection) Palestinian-style, fully loaded falafel sandwiches.

Leyali Amman (in between Reemas and Rowaishan intersections) For those who haven’t been to Jordan, it may seem odd that Sanaa has a Jordanian restaurant run by a couple of guys from Port Said. Those of us familiar with the Hashemite Kingdom’s large population of Egyptian guest workers, however, know that they’re only adding to the authenticity. Nothing too elaborate (don’t come hoping for Mansaf), but loads of cheap fuul, hummus and falafel.

Matam Reemas/Matam al-Khadra/Al-Hamra (Hadda street after Rowaishan intersection) All three of these places have pretty much the same menu, mixing Syrian/Lebanese grilled meats and mezze, Yemeni dishes like Salta, and American fast food (American-style fried chicken, invariably referred to as ‘broast,’ is surprisingly popular here). In my experience, the service at al-Khadra is somewhat lacking; that being said even post Arab Spring, there’s still a certain ironic thrill to eating in an establishment called ‘the Green Restaurant’ that sits next to the Libyan Embassy, which was once lorded over by Qadhafi’s infamous monochromatic green flag (coincidence? probably). In terms of food, its hard to differentiate between the three, based on decor, however, I personally favor al-Hamra. Restaurant logo and furniture appear to consciously call to mind those of an 90′s era McDonalds; a ‘VIP’ section on the top floor features a more refined atmosphere.

Zeit w Zaatar (Hadda Street, by L’Azurde Hotel) Excellent Manaqish (roughly speaking, Lebanese pizza) cooked to order. Surprisingly, there’s pretty good wifi.

Helawiat Al-Zera (off the side street next to Helewiat Dimashq on Hadda Street) For whatever reason, the stretch of Hadda Street between the Rowaishan intersection and Coffee Trader is a riot of Syrian/Iraqi dessert places and Turkish/Iraqi barber shops. Al-Zera is, hands down, the best of the dessert places. Delicious baclawa, basbousa and zunood al-sit, very reasonable prices.

Asian

Kusinang Pinoy (off Hadda Street, by the Yemen Times building) Cheap, filling Filipino food. Most patrons are Filipino oversees workers, but its oddly popular with some of my Yemeni friends, who are shocked that Filipino food isn’t big in the states. I’ve never seen it in use, but I’ve been told that there is a karaoke machine.

Manabu (L’Azurde Hotel) Pretty sure this is the only place serving sushi in Sanaa. Expensive, but worth it; desserts and non-seafood items are also pretty on-point. (http://matam-manabu.blogspot.com/)

Manabu’s Kitchen (L’Azurde Hotel) A branch of the restaurant serving sandwiches, salads and “steamed cakes” (apparently some sort of Japanese cupcake variant and far more delicious than it may sound). The shrimp salad sandwiches remind me of the WASPier parts of my east coast upbringing. 

Koreana (Iran street, by Mocha Bunn) The Bulgogi is good, as are the Korean stews. Rather expensive. CLOSED

Mumbai Darbar (Baghdad Street, after Yali) Reasonably priced Indian food, in my opinion the best of the handful of Indian restaurants in Sanaa. At the moment, Indian food seems to be ‘in’ here, so the place is consistently packed with Upper Middle Class Yemenis.

Tandoori Knights (off Iran Street, near intersection with Hadda Street) Bills itself as a Pakistani restaurant, but the menu is nearly identical (and slightly lower priced) to that of Mumbai Darbar.

Thailana (off Iran street, near Mokha Bunn) Sanaa’s Thai restaurant has reopened in a new location. Vast improvements in the decor, foods largely the same, which is to say, quite good for Thai food in Sanaa. On the expensive side.  CLOSED

Ethiopian

Note: The best Ethiopian food I’ve had in Sanaa was cooked by a woman who used to run the kitchen in the now-defunct Ethiopian restaurant by the Yemen Times building (and, prior to that, the kitchen in a similarly defunct Ethiopian restaurant across from al-Hoda supermarket). If anyone knows where she’s currently working, please fill me in.

Ethiopian Cultural Restaurant (across from the Chinese Embassy) Tibs aren’t to my taste, everything else is on point. Like every other Ethiopian restaurant here, prices are quite reasonable.

Roma (intersection of Zero and Iran Streets) For now, the best Tibs I can find in Sanaa. The family running it is extremely friendly and welcoming; interestingly, the place is run by the son of a Texas-based Ethiopian restauranteur who, despite holding a US passport, says he’s stuck in Sanaa per his father’s instructions.

Western

Pistachio (by Jawlat al-Madina) The latest project by Majda al-Haddad, a prominent Yemeni activist, Pistachio has jumped to the front of the pack and, just days after its opening, its already arguably Sanaa’s top place for western baked goods. The juxtaposition of Yemeni guys in thobe and jambiyya and the stores pink exterior makes for a rather comic sight.

Luca Store (intersection of Zero and Iran Streets) Sanaa’s newest grocery store. Actual offerings aren’t significantly different to what you can find elsewhere, but their in-house bakery is quite good. While selection is usually limited to four or five desserts, in terms of quality, Luca’s offerings make up for the lack of diversity.

Star Burger (Hadda Street, after the Rowaishan Intersection) Pretty solid American fast food. The eponymous “Star Burger” includes a decent portion of caramelized onions–a nice, if somewhat unexpected, touch.

Pizzaiola (way up Hadda street, by Caramel, etc) Upon reflection, this is the best pizza place in Sanaa. Upon further reflection, it is not–see below; still good though. Conveniently (especially for anti-social journalists), one can order pizza and eat it in the cafe next store, which has excellent internet.

Femo (off of Iran street) Essentially, a slightly better version of Pizzaiola. Expanded menu; pastas are passable though, from the stand point of an Italian culinary traditionalist, there’s a lot of heresy taking place (they put stuff in their so-called arrabiata that has no business being in an arrabiata), they also have a deep frier. Either way, I’d imagine the draw here for most is ultimately pizza and the place does deliver on that front.

Hot and Crispy, (after Jandool Supermarket or by the Bagdad/Algeria street intersection) Apparently this is a Saudi reimagining of an American fast food place (very bright colors). Decent pizza.

Star Pizza (near Zero Street) Cheaper than the other two pizza places, interesting paint job.

Tarbouch (Mujahid street/Hadda street intersection, across from Kumaim Center) This newly opened restaurant might be Sanaa’s best western-style fast food place. Shawarma and sandwiches, pretty cheap.

House of Donuts (Hadda street by Kumaim center or Hadda Madina by Zero Street) Yemen’s recently opened answer to the US’ Dunkin Donuts or Canada’s Tim Horton’s. Krispy Kreme doughnuts have been a guilty indulgence of mine since they opened a branch (which has, sadly, since been converted into a bank) near my parent’s home in suburban Baltimore when I was in middle school; from where I’m sitting, the House of Donuts’ offerings don’t hold a candle to KK’s lighter than air packages of fat and calories. Still, the House of Donuts’ doughnuts and pastries are quite good–certainly enough to satisfy those of us in Sanaa.

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