No matter where you go for Yemeni food in Dearborn, one thing is certain: you will probably always have great customer service.
It is the one common thread weaving all establishments together, in a town usually dominated by Lebanese restaurants.
By Elizabeth Clark – The Yemeni American News
In Dearborn, Yemeni food is becoming more and more popular, and has begun to compete with more well-known Lebanese restaurants.
The relatively recent emergence of these small businesses – restaurants, bakeries and coffee shops – shows that the Yemeni community is deepening its economic and cultural mark on Dearborn.
“Yemenis were the first group to settle in the area,” said Dr. Matthew Stiffler, Research and Content Manager at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn. “In the 1920’s, they came mostly to work in the factories or on the Great Lakes.”
Some of the first Yemeni places to eat started up in the back of cafes and coffee shops in the Southend in the 1970’s. Ford specifically recruited Yemeni’s to work in the factories, and many Yemeni people were shipbuilders and navigators.
“If you go to the Dossin Great Lakes Museum on Belle Isle, on the lists of ships, you will always see Yemeni names on there,” said Stiffler.
While Yemenis were among the first Arabs to settle in Dearborn, they have been amongst the last to open full-fledged restaurants and bakeries. Some even owned Lebanese-styled eateries.
Many things are available on menus in both types of places, such as lamb, chicken, breads, and decadent desserts; but Yemeni food seems more inspired by exotic locales such as Ottoman in the north and Mughlai Indian in the South. They serve tanoor – not pita – and utilize the liver in dishes for hearty breakfasts.
An essay by William and Yvonne Lockwood, titled “Continuity and adaptation in Arab American foodways” traces the earliest forms of Middle Eastern cooking and restaurants in the Dearborn and Detroit area.
It describes how Yemeni immigrants would teach the Lebanese cooks how to make their dish, gallaba, and the quintessentially Yemeni dish would end up on the menus of Lebanese restaurants.
Many Lebanese eateries still serve gallaba today, but with more Yemeni food businesses opening up, the dish is reclaiming its original identity locally.
The seasonings usually include Hawaij, or a mix of anise seeds, fennel, ginger and cardamom. Other seasonings include coriander, chili peppers, cumin turmeric and more.
Those seasonings give meaty stews such as Ogdah, or Saltah, considered the national dish of Yemen, their true characteristics. Salteh starts with a meat stew base and adds an herby froth and a mix of vegetables such as peppers, tomatoes and garlic. Other additions include rice, potatoes, eggs, or other vegetables.
‘No one else can make it’
Najemddine Qatoul, a manager at Sheba restaurant on Michigan Avenue, says that there are a few stars on the menu at Sheba. One of them is the lamb Haneeth, a uniquely Yemeni dish where the lamb is slow-roasted, seasoned with cardamom and other herbs and spices, and cooked to a rich yet soft consistency.
“No one else can make it, not the same—the seasoning, the sauce, no one,” he said.
Another popular dish at Sheba is the Fahsah, shredded lamb with mashed vegetables and potatoes, served piping hot in a clay bowl, typical of many dishes.
“Lebanese sell these things too,” he said. “But the way it is cooked is way different.”
Qatoul says that Sabaya, a Yemeni pastry made with honey, is also very popular. “I must have sold 25 or 30 of those last night.”
Business has been good and has picked up as other Yemeni food places open.
Another popular place for Yemeni cuisine is Al-Nawras, at 3249 Wyoming, where chef Abu Senan takes pride in preparing his meals with fresh, locally-sourced ingredients.
They also sell a variety of specialty dishes, including their magnificent Saltah, as well as Haneeth, Aqda, chicken livers and more. They also have a large variety of smoothies and other beverages.
On their website, you can take a 3-D tour of the place. http://alnawrasrestaurant.com/.
Rotimax Bakery and Cafeteria has been open on Michigan Avenue for nearly a year, and owner Gamal Kamhan noticed when he moved to Michigan from Arkansas years ago that despite the heavy Arabic presence in Dearborn, there were no Yemeni bakeries or restaurants.
“I spent most of my time in Dearborn,” said Kamhan. “I see the Lebanese, Iraqi, big community here, but no bakery. That’s bad.”
Eventually, cousins in Yemen who already owned bakeries overseas convinced him to open a Yemen bakery in Dearborn.
“I am the first Yemeni bakery in the U.S.,” said Kamhan proudly.
Kamhan went to Yemen for a few weeks to learn about the bakery practices, and then to France to learn about making bread.
“I went to France for three days to know more ideas,” he said. “I like to get more ideas from a lot of places.”
After another detour to Dubai, he then arrived back in Michigan and started looking for a location. He found the spacious building at 14430 Michigan Avenue and remodeled it.
The bright spot features beautiful bakery cases and floors, and offers items such as smoothies, sandwiches, and of course, many breads.
Kamhan loves being in Dearborn, close to home and in the middle of a thriving community.
“Dearborn is a nice place; it’s safe, a lot of our community here.”
Another popular spot, especially for Sabaya and coffee, is Qahwah House, a coffee house at 6655 Schaefer Road. Their website https://www.qahwahhouse.com/ explains their ancestral connection to coffee.
Stiffler says that while many recognize streets like Warren and Schaefer, he describes Michigan Avenue as the next big food corridor in Dearborn.
“Keep an eye out for what is happening on Michigan Avenue,” said Stiffler. “There are four or five places on a few block radius. It’s really exciting.”