The news from Yemen hasn’t been very good in recent years. The country at the southwestern corner of the Arabian peninsula is most often portrayed in terms of terrorism, drone strikes, civil war, and Saudi intervention. Despite all the bad news, Yemen, like almost all war-torn lands, has a culture and a cuisine largely hidden by the strife but worth exploring. Apache Boulevard in Tempe is home to numerous restaurants serving Middle Eastern food, but one recent arrival, Oasis Bakery and Cuisine, stands out with its distinctive focus on the food of Yemen.
Oasis is on a stretch of Apache that has yet to be transformed by the development boom along the street. Situated between an apartment complex on one side and a mobile home park on the other, Oasis’ red building is hard to miss. Until recently, it was home to a reincarnated Long Wong’s, the long gone Tempe bar and live music venue. The location is one block west of the McClintock / Apache light rail station. There’s no bike rack, but a long railing along Apache provides ample security and is conveniently situated near the restaurant’s front door.
Inside, the restaurant shows some evidence of wear and some vestiges of previous tenants, but there’s also been some customization to reflect a Yemeni identity. Some colorful posters adorn the main dining room, and off to the side is a second dining room with carpets and floor-level seating designed for a more traditional Middle Eastern dining style. The bar used by Long Wong’s is still present, but Oasis does not serve alcohol. Instead, the L-shaped structure has become a display case for baked goods. A television overhead shows dramas, music, and news — all in Arabic.
There’s one menu for the entire day, with special sections for sandwiches and breakfast items. Almost everything else is served in big plates and platters suitable for sharing. Starters include the usual Middle Eastern dips with pita. The hummus at Oasis is mild on its own without much of a kick from garlic or lemon; however, it’s presented with toppings of za’atar spice, minced parsley, and olive oil. Those add-ons combine to make it an effective match for the fresh bread. Another good appetizer choice is any of the savory pastries such as an open-faced spinach pie.
The selection of dishes seems overwhelming at first, but most of the 32 items are nuanced variations on a theme of meat and rice. Red meat at Oasis usually means lamb with occasional appearances by beef or goat. Virtually every dish prepared with lamb has a chicken counterpart. The simplest dish to start with is at the top of the menu: the meat or chicken mandi. The protein is gently seasoned, baked, and then served over a basmati rice pilaf. A kabob entree has cubes of meat with plenty of moisture and flavor served with grilled tomatoes and jalapeños, as well as rice.
Expect rice with just about everything served at Oasis. It’s so abundant that even with shared entrees, some rice is still likely to make its way home in a to-go container. In some cases, meats and vegetables are blended into the rice. The zerban dishes mix meat with a saffron rice pilaf and an abundance of raisins, but unfortunately none of the potatoes promised on the menu. A meatless entree, and one of the few not to come with rice, is a platter of six balls of falafel made from a mix of chickpeas and fava beans and served with a yogurt sauce in the center.
Although Yemen is an arid land, it also has an extensive coastline. It’s therefore unsurprising that one of the stars of the menu is fish. There are only two seafood entrees listed — a whole golden pompano either grilled or fried, but this is a corner of the menu not to be overlooked. The fish is coated in an assertive red sauce before cooking, butterflied, and served with a few slices of lime. There are still a few bones left when it arrives at the table, but even once those are removed, the fish, along with the accompanying platter of rice pilaf, is a hearty entree suitable for sharing.
Another distinctly Yemeni dish worth sampling is the salteh, a stew in which a spicy tomato sauce flavored with helba, more commonly known in the U.S. as fenugreek, bubbles at seemingly volcanic temperatures as it is brought to the table in a cast iron vessel. The stew’s other ingredients can vary. Once it was mostly beans with a little meat; another time it was corn, peas, and rice. Fahseh is a similar stew with more abundant braised meat within and pieces of flatbread to use as utensils in scooping the lamb or chicken and absorbing the zesty sauce.
Although Oasis identifies itself as a bakery as much as a restaurant, the supply of pastry is irregular. During two out of three visits, none was available. When it is, customers can have anything they want, as long as it’s baklava. That’s not a negative since it comes in myriad shapes ff(triangular, square, trapezoidal, and cylindrical) and stuffed with a variety of fillings, including mixed nuts, pistachios, and almonds. If there’s no pastry available on any given day, a few sweet items hidden in the entree menu offer dates, bananas, bread, and cream in various combinations.
There are also fruit smoothies that can function as liquid desserts. A refrigerated case with Mexican Coke and bottled yogurt drinks, along with a self-service station with complimentary spiced black tea, completes the beverage selection. Pay at the counter when done with the meal and take satisfaction in having gone beyond the bleak headlines to experience another side of Yemen, a country with a heritage that goes back thousands of years before the current spate of bad news. The good news is that the culinary aspect of that tradition is now available in Tempe.
1639 E. Apache Blvd., Tempe AZ 85281
McClintock / Apache Station