Get deliciously lost in translation at Saba.
Words by Stefanie Gans Photos by Jonathan Timmes
There’s a saying that food tastes better on vacation. It’s the cliche of warm breezes and palm trees, fresh fruits and exotic flavors. But that’s not all vacations.
Vacation meals can also be hard won. There’s little signage and big language barriers. There’s vague menu descriptions, but clear hope for a fantastic meal.
Dining at Saba can be like this. Assuming you’ve never been to Yemen and do not speak Arabic, you may have to work for your dinner.
While the menu is in both English and Arabic and most of the servers speak fairly fluent English, there can be questions misunderstood or requests unfulfilled. But there’s a charm in this too, just like that big smile from the server who brought out a $40, 16-inch croissant-like cake when we asked for a slice. They graciously comp’d us the dessert when we explained our surprise to find a layered, honey-sweetened bready dessert, bulbous like a balloon, quickly deflating. Around the table we took video and Snapchatted the delicious mistake to friends.
I tell this story with the heart of a vacationer happy to bring home a lost-in-translation tale of delicious, foreign food.
The restaurant is in a strip mall off Little River Turnpike in Fairfax. The first floor has long tables. To the right, a few steps to a second landing where there’s couches, plus room for people to sit on the floor and eat with their hands. It’s called majalis, or living room, and is reminiscent of how families eat at home in Yemen. We saw little kids running around and women dressed in niqab.
To start, there’s excellent sambusas, chunky triangles of fried pastry with vegetables embracing warm spices. Fried pieces of pleasingly chewy lamb, qullaba, is a bit like the American-Chinese dish pepper steak, or as a friend who lived in China said, it reminded her of a Uyghur stew, laghman, and carries the same flavors of cumin and peppers. In Yemen, this is a breakfast dish, but at Saba—which refers to the ancient kingdom where the Queen of Sheeba is from, which is considered to be in modern day Yemen—it’s available all day.
Shakshukah, eggs with tomatoes, jalapenos and caramelized onions, turns scrambles into a full meal that’s savory, hearty and spicy. A less recognizable pre-noon dish on American tables is a stew, foul, of fava beans pureed with tomatoes and onions. It’s like a warm lentil salad, subtle and comforting and to be scooped up with bread. Right now the kitchen purchases its naan-like bread, but owner Taha Alhoraivi, ordered a tandoori-like oven which should be installed in his restructured and expanded kitchen in the spring, promising housemade carbohydrates.
For a sweet take on the morning, fatah bil-at-tamr wa asl is a bit like chewy bread pudding, flakes of bread, rashoush, sticky with honey and dotted with dates. The portion is large; take leftovers with you for an afternoon snack break.
But why you’re here is for the fragrant rice and soft meats. There’s three sizes available for these meat-and-one plates and even the individual portion is enough to easily share. The roasted chicken mandi is gorgeous and tender, both familiar and exotic (the lamb is tougher). Named for the eponymous spice blend, Alhoraivi, 38, asks friends to bring mandi, and other herbs, back to the United States from their travels to Yemen.
Large cubes of beef are served stew-like in fahsa. Instead of feeling heavy, weighed down with fat or cream, it’s fresh and bright; it’s more like the Korean bibimbap. Most dishes are served with a salad that is a bit like a salsa fresca, chopped tomatoes and onion with loads of garlic greased together with oil.
In other countries of the Middle East, Mediterranean and North Africa there’s flaky, honey-drenched pastry cakes, at Saba there’s similar dishes. But there’s nothing in the family of baklva that will prepare you for the combination that is areekah. It uses the same chewy bread pieces, rashoush, with bananas, cream, honey, nigella (black seeds tasting of onion) and shredded cheddar cheese. It’s not a sharp, interestingly granular cheddar cheese we’re used to. The cheese is soft and almost tasteless. It adds volume and a little salt and easily blends into the cream. Together, it’s creamy and a bit chewy from the bread. It forms a bowl of sweetness, a comfort I never knew before.
There’s a few interesting sweet drinks and sludgy Turkish coffee, but no alcohol here.
Appetizers: $1.50 – $8.95; Entrees: $12.95 – $18.95
Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily
3900 Pickett Road, Fairfax