Yemeni cuisine sits at the crossroads of Turkish, East African and Arabic culinary influences, which proves to be a delicious mix. There have been a few Yemeni restaurants in Chicago that have come and gone, however, we heard consistently good things about Shibam City (4807 N. Elston Ave., Chicago), formerly known as Salah & Said). Shibam City is named after a town by the same name in central Yemen, famous for its mud-brick high-rise buildings.
When we entered, the restaurant was already hopping, with Yemeni families and groups of teenaged friends, ordering giant tables full of food. The restaurant is open until 11 so you are welcome to linger, and there is an area in the font where you can sit on cushions on the floor. The menu features Yemeni favorites, with a focus on shareable meat platters. We chatted a bit with the affable hostess who gave us some recommendations – “try anything with lamb!” she implored – so we decided that would certainly be the best way to go. While deciding what to order, we sipped on homemade spiced black tea – which was refreshing – and strong.
We started off with M’s favorite Mediterranean appetizer – N’ana’ Labneh ($4.99) – mint and yogurt dip, served with delicious, hot Malawah bread layered with ghee, a decidedly more delicious version of pita. We went with a lamb options, Mandi ($13.99) – bone-in lamb with rice, and what was billed as the national dish of Yemen, Salta, a lamb stew made with fenugreek, chiles and tomatoes. garlic and herbs. Both dishes were heavily-spiced and fragrant, and even the rice was scented with saffron and spices. The lamb was delicious, as advertised, though we wished we got more lamb with the mandi.
We finished up with Ma’soob ($7.99) for dessert, a Yemeni cousin of rice pudding, made with ripe bananas, ground flatbread, fresh cheese and honey. Loving both rice pudding and bananas, M was in heaven. Yemeni food was completely different than most Middle Eastern food, and we are grateful for the opportunity to have tried it.