by Rebecca Holland
My favorite restaurant in the world is a living room in Irbid, Jordan. I don’t know what it’s called, or even where it is, only that it holds memories infused with fragrant spices and sweet tea, and has a large Pepsi logo on the door.
During a few months studying in Irbid, this Yemeni restaurant became a weekly treat. My friends Gabe and Mike stumbled upon it one day, then brought a small group back to sit in a circle and rip pieces of bread to scoop up shakshouka, spicy shredded chicken with tomatoes, foul, and a few other dishes.
There was room for four or five groups of people to sit on the floor, where sheets of plastic were spread and giant rounds of flatbread dropped in the center. In the back corner an ancient looking stereo played Arabic music and without fail a group of men sat smoking. Our group stood out, but was always welcomed, first curiously, and then as expected weekly guests.
The bread remains the best thing I’ve ever eaten, but is something I have never been able to describe. Called mlawi or sabayyad, it’s very similar to paratha–thin and layered, crispy and flaky on the edges, and soft in the center. It has a flavor that’s almost sweet, balancing the spicy stews it’s served with. But no matter what I say, there’s nothing that can do it justice. We would scoop up flavorful meat and fluffy eggs, wiping the bowls clean with the soft parts of the bread. And then we would sit back for shahi haleeb, a sweet milk tea.
The restaurant sits on a small street and from what I could tell doesn’t have a name. Inevitably, someone would get lost trying to find it each time. I wish I would have marked it on a map, because if I went back to Irbid now I wouldn’t even know where to begin. My last week there I ate at the restaurant twice, trying to ingrain the taste of the bread in my mind forever.
A year later, back in Jordan but this time staying in Amman, I told friends about the most amazing Yemeni restaurant in Irbid. “Yemeni?” they said, laughing. We eat it all the time! And they took me and my friend Brianna, who had also experienced the wonder of the Irbid spot, to a beautiful restaurant where we sat on the floor and feasted on….something completely different. They had brought us to a spot for mandi, a famous Yemeni rice and meat dish served with spices and yogurt. It was delicious, but not what we had been craving. We explained and explained, but none of them had heard of the foods we were describing. Finally, we summoned a waiter and showed him a photo. His face lit up, and he explained that the foods we loved were actually traditional breakfast foods, but there was a place we could get them any time of day.
This place is aptly named Sana’a, and is near the University of Jordan in Amman. With plastic tables and fluorescent lighting it doesn’t have the charm of the Irbid restaurant, but it does serve the same dishes, and is best place I’ve found in Amman so far. The dishes aren’t as moist or perfectly spiced, and the bread is a bit crunchier and not quite as addicting, but it satisfies the craving. If you’re in Amman, it’s definitely worth a stop, and if you’re in Irbid and stumble upon Yemeni breakfast served by a friendly man on a living room floor, please send me a photo and a location immediately.