Yemen Café has become a central meeting place for people of all religions and ethnicities, and a gathering place for some fantastic Yemeni food. We sat down with Sid Nassir, whose family business has impacted two lucky communities of New York: one in downtown Brooklyn, and one in Bay Ridge. From the smiling faces seated inside to the chatter laced with passion and authenticity, this inclusive haven takes you into the open arms of a dream-turned-reality.
Tell me a little bit about the history of Yemen Café.
Yemen Café is a Yemeni restaurant that started in 1986. But before that, it was more of a social place where Yemenis went. Back in the ’80s, there weren’t too many Yemenis who were in New York – but every time somebody came from Yemen, they were more than welcome to come to that place. My father would help them with a place to live, he would help them find a job, and he would find a way to get them on their feet. So it started off that way, and then we just started selling the traditional food everybody usually missed.
It’s funny because when we first opened up the restaurant, everybody was making fun of him for starting a Yemeni restaurant.
They were in America and they had burgers and everything else – but eventually, everybody started missing that home-cooked food, and my dad started cooking it. And those were the days when people didn’t have their families here. They would come as single men and they would work here in New York, and then they would go home, get married, and leave their family yet again. And that’s just how it was.
So how would you describe Yemeni cuisine?
Yemeni food is very keen on spices. We love that flavor bang. There’s a dish called Fahsah. You cut a piece of lamb off the bone, and then you mix it in with a type of stew with vegetables, and it comes in a hot pot where it’s boiling. And that’s one of the most traditional dishes in Yemen. Actually, on the menu, it’s nicknamed “The Volcano.”
Who in your family is involved in running the business?
Me, my brother, my uncle, and my cousins. It’s become a family thing. My dad and his family and my uncle and his family live right upstairs from each other, so growing up, the restaurant was just downstairs. It was just like this huge community inside of another community. It was probably around 15 kids just running around – everybody hung out outside. We hung out with the neighbors, we played basketball – we did all that fun stuff.
You talk a lot about your neighborhood community. Why is being active in your community so important to you and your family?
Well, the community itself is considered the family. If there is a situation that anybody is having or there’s something wrong that’s happening, it’s natural that you would feel that way with this type of community. We are very close.
And it’s funny because everybody usually says it’s about religion. But there are Muslims, Christians, there are Jewish people… We’re all different types of people on that block, but it doesn’t matter what you are.
That’s really cool. I’d like to hear more about your dad and his story, and how your family started this period of your lives in New York.
My father’s very old — he’s like 95, 96 right now. And he’s been all over the world. The best time we have with him is when we sit down and actually listen to his stories. Back in the days when he was a kid, if somebody was to pass away in the village and he was in another country — whether it’s a mother, father, brother, whoever it was — they wouldn’t know that the person passed away until a year, year and a half later.
There was no way to get in communication with each other. So, he goes, “The fact that you have a cell phone where you could just pick it up and get in contact with your mom in Yemen or your cousin in this country, this is a blessing.”
They were very, very poor in Yemen. Yemen is a very poor country. There was no food when he was a kid. So my father was very, very keen on people who were hungry or poor or needed something. And he always told us, even my uncle – they always told us, “Whenever somebody comes into the restaurant hungry, even if they don’t have any money, you feed them.” Don’t worry about money or anything like that because you never know what somebody is going through.
We were lucky we didn’t have to experience that or suffer like that. But my father, he left Yemen in order to find a better life for his parents and his brothers and sisters. He is always working, even at 95 years old. If he was here, you would have met him. He would have been in the restaurant, walking around making sure everybody’s good.
What do you hope people will learn about your culture through Yemen Café?
Well, not necessarily the restaurant, just Yemeni people in general. Have a conversation with them. Go up to them and speak to them. And if you don’t understand something that, let’s say, if it’s a cultural thing or a religious thing, ask them. They’ll be more than happy to explain it. You’ll start talking about fun stuff.
That’s how we are. That’s how the Yemeni community is. We’ll have a conversation.
Even my mom who doesn’t speak English, if she understands a little bit of what a person said, she’ll tell me, “Hey, I’m going to tell you. Translate.” So we’re very talkative people – very friendly people. And we just love being in that type of community. Whether it’s a bunch of Yemenis or a bunch of Arabs, or the whole community in general, or a bunch of religions and races. So, just ask questions. Nobody will be upset. You have to open up, ask the questions and I promise, you’ll have a great conversation with them – and then you’ll make a friend.
To hear more of Sid’s story, check out Season Two, Episode Ten of the Open Belly podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Downtown Brooklyn: 176 Atlantic Avenue Brooklyn, NY, 11201
Bay Ridge: 7130 5th Avenue Brooklyn, NY, 11209
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Images by Chris Dolt | Edited by Emily Neudorf & Kristen Reames