Though the smeary pink interior of 145 Luncheonette is accented with fake brick like a ’60s diner, a squint through the window reveals an Arabic menu at the end of the room with no English translations. A mural on one wall depicts a town of adobe towers backed by breathtaking cliffs, while an airline poster reminds us that Yemen is “The Land of the Queen of Sheba.” Don’t worry if you can’t read the menu, because your host will bring you a set meal (approximately $6.50 per person, exact price revealed with your bill). It begins with a straw-colored soup, a delicate consommé of lamb that would do any French restaurant proud. Though it’s not quite curry, flavors like turmeric and ground coriander emerge, and you can make out a few morsels of celery and onion in the darkly translucent depths. In good time a salad of romaine, tomato, onion, and flat-leaf parsley arrives, unremarkable save for the crispness of its greens and a tangy, substantial vinaigrette.
Consistent with Arab hospitality customs, the food is served communally, and the salad appears with radiating forks already in place. You will be offered plates, which you should refuse unless your fellow diners are visibly diseased, or you mistrust them to share. The meat course comes on a round metal platter, bedded with sepia-stained rice marvelously aromatic of cinnamon and meat juices. At intervals around the perimeter little piles of a thick potato stew occur, so good you’ll wish you’d gotten more. But the focus is the meat. The selection is negotiable, although Yemeni favorites like kidneys and liver run out early in the day. On several visits we enjoyed pleasantly charred lamb chops, a tender roast chicken with burnished skin intact, a heap of baby lamb rib nicely salted and falling off the bone, and mutton that had been thickly smeared with hawayij, a spice paste of caraway, black peppercorns, cardamom, and turmeric. Only the boiled lamb disappointed; it was tough and most of the flavor had already disappeared into the soup.
Such a prodigious meat display would be a rarity in impoverished Yemen, a feast appropriate to the end of Ramadan or some other festive occasion. But 145 Luncheonette also offers the common fare of the country, if you can read the menu or know to ask for it. First, there’s fatut, a pottage of chopped vegetables and jalapeños in a stout broth buoying fragments of pita that dampen, become gummy, and eventually disintegrate. Another comforting concoction is assid, a giant doughnut-shaped dumpling with a lake of sauce in the middle. Tear off fragments of this African-style mash with your fingers and dip.
But foremost is salta, which sails in enshrined in a black iron cauldron that bubbles and sputters alarmingly. Underneath is a concentrated meat-and-vegetable gravy, while on top, a thick foam seems to be the product of some chemical reaction gone astray. It’s hulba, an emulsion of powdered fenugreek seed and lemon that imbues the dish with a sour and bitter flavor. In Yemen it doubles as a folk remedy, and I can personally testify that it’s good for what ails you.