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 of numerous nationalities, but one in particular, Mandi House, stands out with its distinctive focus on the food of Yemen.
Mandi House 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, Mandi House’s red building is hard to miss. 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. The front entrance is not in use because the vestibule just inside it serves as a prayer area. Instead, all access is via the back entrance facing the parking lot.
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. A bar used by a prior occupant is still present, but Mandi House does not serve alcohol. Instead, the L-shaped structure is used for occasional buffets, typically offered at iftar, the post-sunset Ramadan meal.
There’s one menu for the entire day, with special sections for sandwiches and breakfast items. Hand-written sheets posted near the bar offer half portions of most entrees as lunch specials. Almost everything else is served on big platters suitable for sharing. Starters include the usual Middle Eastern dips with pita. The hummus at Mandi House 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.
The selection of dishes seems overwhelming at first, but most of the items are nuanced variations on a theme of meat and rice. Red meat at Mandi House usually means lamb with occasional appearances by beeft. Virtually every dish prepared with lamb has a chicken counterpart. The simplest dish to start with is at the restaurant’s namesake dish: 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 grilled tomatoes and jalapeños, as well as rice.
Expect rice with just about everything served at Mandi House. 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. Zerban dishes mix meat with a saffron rice pilaf and an abundance of raisins. Kabsa dishes rely on tomato sauce and mix of spices. 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 ample coastline. It’s therefore unsurprising that one of the stars of the menu is fish. There are only two seafood entrees listed — a whole fish either grilled or baked, 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 Mandi House does not serve pastries like baklava, which are well represented elsewhere on the Apache Boulevard corridor, it does offer two traditional sweet dishes that can function as desserts. Ma’soub is a Yemeni banana bread pudding, and areeka pairs bread with dates and cream cheese. Both come in large portions suitable for the entire table. There are also fruit juices that can function as liquid desserts. Strawberry, banana, and mango are usually available, along with “cocktail juice,” a thick, layered mix of multiple fruits.
A refrigerated case with sodas 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. Thankfully, the good news is that those long standing culinary traditions are available to anyone with a sense of adventure in modern-day Tempe.
1639 E. Apache Blvd., Tempe AZ 85281
McClintock / Apache Station