It seemed fitting to plan a visit to Yemeni Kitchen, a Middle Eastern restaurant in Kissimmee, during Ramadan, the holy month observed by Muslims worldwide. The Republic of Yemen is the second largest country in the Arabian Peninsula, and a restaurant in Central Florida dedicated to its food was a worthwhile trek.
It might seem odd to plan a visit to a Middle Eastern restaurant during Ramadan, during which one of the more well-known observances involves fasting. But that’s only from sunrise to sundown.
And that explains the handwritten note on the front door of Yemeni Kitchen announcing the start of the evening’s buffet: precisely at 8:19, the official time of sunset. And not a moment sooner.
Unfortunately, my companion and I arrived about 45 minutes too soon for the buffet, although the restaurant was open to the public. Still, not surprisingly, it was largely empty of other customers except for one man awaiting a takeout order that he would no doubt save until the evening.
We were greeted warmly by a very young man, perhaps in his teens. He led us to booth by the front window. Like all the other tables in the restaurant, it had a small dish of dates for us to nibble on while we looked over the menu.
After we placed our orders we were given bowls of Maraq, a lamb broth soup that is a traditional start to a Yemeni meal. The broth was rich and unctuous. Instead of the usual lemon wedge served with the soup, Yemeni Kitchen offers a dish of sahawiq, a tomato based condiment that would look right at home on the table of a Mexican restaurant. And just as spicy as a good salsa, too.
Our young server also brought us some malawah, or as described it with a wide smile, “the famous Yemeni bread!” Sort of a cross between naan and lavash and the size of a pizza platter, it had wonderful brown bubbles from baking and tore easily.
Although we ordered starters and entrees, all arrived at the same time. We of course had to have the Saltah, which is sort of a national dish of Yemen, though it has regional variations. Yemeni Kitchen’s has a lamb broth base, though no meat within. Instead, it had various vegetables, including okra, and was accompanied by whipped fenugreek, which has a very pasty texture, that is meant to be stirred into the broth. It was served in a traditional clay bowl and, as promised on the menu, very hot. So much so that it was still bubbling.
So was the Foul (pronounced fool), which we had ordered as one of the starters. It was also in a clay pot and consisted of mashed fava beans mixed with onions and tomatoes. Once it had cooled enough to handle, it was delicious with the bread. (Our server brought us two more of the saucer-sized discs and slid them on top of the still uneaten initial bread.)
I was a bit disappointed that the restaurant was out of Mandi, another popular dish of Yemen and other countries in the region. Instead I settled for Lamb Haneed, which is similar. It featured a lamb shank roasted in a tandoor and served on rice. The meat was tender and had wonderful spicing.
The Falafel, which I had ordered because the kitchen was out of Fassolia, was just OK.
The dining room is spartan and the interior and exterior of the freestanding building looks as though it may once have been a diner, though the previous occupant was an Indian restaurant. (None of which explains why there is a large poster of the famous sign in the Hollywood hills on the wall.) It’s not particularly a pretty place, but I did not find it unkempt.
Needless to say, alcohol is not available.
By the time we had finished our meal, people were starting to arrive, though the break-fasting time was still a good 15 minutes away. Awaiting them would be a buffet, likely with most of the foods we had but for a better deal at $9.99 — and all you can eat.
It’s unclear whether the buffet is something that will continue beyond Ramadan, which ends on June 24 this year. If you’re the type who likes to experience the culture and cuisine of many countries, I would recommend a visit to Yemeni Kitchen. I'm sure you'll be greeted as warmly as we were.
Yemeni Kitchen is at 4561 W. Irlo Bronson Memorial Highway, Kissimmee. It is open for dinner daily. The phone number is 407-507-0700.