Vancouver restaurants: Yemeni slow-roasted haneeth stars at Saba Foods

Served with fluffed and airy rice, turmeric, a salad and Yemeni hot sauce, these plates groan under a volume of food that easily could feed two

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Saba Foods Yemeni Restaurant

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Where: 509 Main St., Vancouver.

When: lunch, Saturday and Sunday; dinner, Wednesday to Monday.

More info, web: 604-358-0566.

I first met Alwaleed Ogbah in 2017 when the Vancouver Sun newsroom was in a downtown office tower with a bakery-cafe on the ground floor. On weekends when the cafe was closed, he operated a pop-up with takeout Yemeni food. It was called Yemen Haneeth and the mainstays were lamb and chicken haneeth — both slow cooked into utter submission.

Since then, Ogbah and his wife Brenda Seng opened Saba Foods, moving operations three times in Surrey and with each move, customers followed. Last year they made a final move to Vancouver’s Chinatown, and now he’s hoping to open another location on Denman Street and a franchise in Mississauga, Ont.

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It seems my recent columns have been tracking the diaspora from the world’s hot zones. Zarak and Kozak, both of which I’d heartily recommend, are Afghani and Ukrainian restaurants. Yemen, too, is in a humanitarian crisis thanks to an ongoing seven-year civil war.

Ogbah is the 18th child of 22 siblings and most are back in Yemen.

“I call them every day. They’re fine. It’s the new normal,” he says.

He’s hosting a fundraising dinner for Yemen at his restaurant sometime in the next few weeks to assist in the new normal.

When I visited recently, the lamb ($24) and chicken haneeth ($20) dishes retained their status as stars of the show. They’re both halal and incredibly moist, tender and loaded with flavour from 16 spices. The lamb or chicken mandi dishes are similar but have fewer spices.

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Lamb haneeth at Saba Foods Yemeni Restaurant.
Lamb haneeth at Saba Foods Yemeni Restaurant. Photo by Mark Lewis

The haneeth and mandi dishes are served with beautifully fluffed and airy rice, beaming with turmeric, a salad and Yemeni hot sauce. The plates groan under the volume of food that easily could feed two, especially if you order another dish like a salad, lentil soup or hummus. It’s all delicious and not at all heavy or oily.

Traditionally, meats are cooked in an underground pit. “The fat burns and creates smoke which infuses the meat,” Ogbah says.

Since city zoning won’t allow him to dig an earthen pit in the restaurant, Ogbah adds smoke with charcoal but it falls just short of authentic.

He started this chapter as a restaurateur because he missed Yemeni food after moving to Vancouver. It took 40 tries before he was happy with the haneeth, which requires 16 spices —  largely cumin and black pepper — and he’s found a supplier in Toronto who brings in Yemeni spices he couldn’t find in Vancouver. He cooks three or four batches a day, slow roasting for up to five hours.

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Table cutlery did not include a knife for the haneeth but I refrained from hailing our server when my spoon touched the lamb. Tender submission.

“If you ask for a knife, it means we didn’t do a good job,” he says.

Alwaleed Ogbah, owner of Saba Foods Yemeni Restaurant at 509 Main St.
Alwaleed Ogbah, owner of Saba Foods Yemeni Restaurant at 509 Main St. Photo by Mia Stainsby

We also ordered ful, a fava bean stew ($14). An appetizer. Supposedly. It was enough for two as a meal and a nutritious dish with the beans, tomatoes, garlic and spices.  It arrived sizzling in a hot stone pot, more a mash than a stew. We packed most of it up to have with toast for lunch the next day.

Yemen is known for its variety of flatbreads, but the restaurant uses pita. 

A ground beef kebab ($20) with pita, salad and garlic mayo wasn’t as satisfying. The deep-frying kind of sucker punched the life out of them. The kebabs can also be ordered as a sandwich.

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The desserts are worth trying. The pancake-shaped kunafa is made with kataifi, a spun pastry that looks like shredded wheat. Served hot, it’s soaked in attar, a light sugar syrup, and sandwiches a layer of cheese or cream. The varieties of baklava have been a hit. They’re cut into neat cubes and aren’t overwhelmed with honey. 

Ogbah had gone on a hunt for baklava that excited him. Nothing. Then a group of Syrian refugees booked a party at Saba and brought baklava for dessert and that was it! He hired the man that had made them.

“It’s his recipe and he’s been doing it for 35 years, since he was nine.”

They’re available, boxed, to buy at the restaurant if you want to take some home.

The haneeth and mandi are based on Ogbah’s mom’s recipes. And he’d developed business smarts in Yemen where he and a brother sold telecommunications systems, medical equipment and armoured vehicles as well as security to diplomats and executives. As well as Saba Eatery and its branches, he and his wife are starting a digital marketing company.

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Following Muslim practice, there is no alcohol on the menu.

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