Zio and I were hungry. The next scheduled meeting with our group of gluttons had been postponed, but we couldn’t wait. We needed our food fix now. I suggested Margie’s Red Rose Diner on 144th Street, but when Zio and I arrived the gate was pulled down and there was a handwritten sign on it saying Margie’s would be closed in January, reopening February 28th. The date was March 8th. The gate was still down.
Plan B was a few blocks away, just down the hill from City College. A place I noticed while looking for parking when bringing my son to piano lessons at the Harlem School of the Arts. Queen Sheeba seemed like an odd choice for the neighborhood, but maybe not. It was advertised as Middle Eastern; halal, of course, and the specific country, Yemen.
There was a Hispanic couple at one of the tables in the ornately decorated restaurant along with a few children running around…obviously related to the owners.
The couple was talking loud, commenting favorably on the food and trying to engage the host/waiter/owner and then us into their conversation.
“Are those your grandkids?” the man at the table, gesturing to the children, asked the owner, who’s English was either truly limited or just pretending that it was so he had an out when it came to talking to his clientele.
He nodded that they were.
“How old are you?” the man at the table asked.
“Fifteen,” he replied with practically a straight face; the curve of a mischievous grin barely apparent.
“Okay, you don’t have to tell me. But you look great,” the man said. “Me, I’m 52.”
I took a closer look at him from our table. He didn’t look so great for 52, but I kept my mouth shut.
The female half of the couple saw me peeking. “Try the rice, it’s really good,” she said to Zio and I.
“Yeah, everything is good here,” her companion said in a booming voice so the owner would hear. “The lamb. The chicken. We’re coming back again. Enjoy your meal.” And then the two of them waddled out.
Zio and I started with the restaurant’s baba ghanoush, which, drizzled with olive oil and garnished with pimento-stuffed olives, ranked in the upper echelon in the unofficial baba ganoush ratings. The pita bread it came with was warm and was the perfect texture for scooping baba ganoush.
Though Zio was tempted by the picture of the spaghetti displayed on the restaurant’s window; spaghetti—Yemeni-style would be adventurous to say the least, he couldn’t get himself to order it. Zio tends to be a wee bit predictable at times and if there is fish on the menu, that’s where he invariably goes. At Queen Sheeba, he stuck to his pattern and tried the lightly stewed tilapia while I was intrigued by the “Yemen Dish” called Saltah.
A salad came out first. It looked undressed and there was a greenish sauce that came with it. Zio sprinkled it on the salad and so did I. As we took our first bite of the chopped iceberg lettuce, we winced; the sauce was no dressing but a spicy condiment for our meals. Even though it brought tears to our eyes, we were undeterred and ate all of the crispy hot sauce drenched salad.
Next we were brought bowls of muddy brown soup; a beef broth that was rich and thickened somewhat with mashed lentils…I think. I asked our waiter what type of soup it was. The answer was undecipherable. Whatever the soup was called, it was—and I’ll make an exception here and use the word I try to avoid when describing anything I eat—delicious.
Our entrees followed; Zio’s fish smothered in a onion, tomato, and pepper sauce accompanied by the highly praised rice.
The satah arrived in a bowl; a comforting stew of vegetables with bits of ground lamb. Though there were a few distinct middle eastern spices in the stew, it reminded me of was a dish my grandmother used to make for me she called “cucuzza longa;” stewed pieces of a long squash that my grandfather grew in his garden, peeled, chopped and served in a tomato-based broth with ground beef. Who knew Yemen had anything in common with Calabria?
Zio was having trouble finishing off his fish, but I made quick work of the satah, catching any remains of the stew with what was left of the pita bread.
The owner/waiter, whose name, we learned was Ali, smiled in pleasure when he saw how well we ate. He brought us Yemen tea, fragrant with cloves as a digestif which I drank along with a fresh, very moist slice of baklava (spelled on Queen Sheeba’s menu as baklawa).
Since I live in Harlem, though not within walking distance of Queen Sheeba; I asked if they delivered to where I live. I told him my address but he shook his head. “You don’t?” I asked, disappointed.
Ali went to the counter near the restaurant’s entrance, found a pen and business card and returned to us. He had me write my address and phone number on the card.
“We’ll deliver to you,” he said.
I looked at Zio. “See, you’re special,” he said to me.
“Yeah, how about that,” I said, making sure to slip a take out menu into my coat pocket before we both left.
Brian Silverman chronicles cheap eats, congee, cachapas, cow foot, cow brains, bizarre foods, baccala, bad verse, fazool, fish stomach, happy hours, hot peppers, hot pots, pupusas, pastas, rum punch and rotis, among many other things on his site Fried Neck Bones...and Some Home Fries. Twitter: neckbones@fried_neckbones.