A Taste of Havana

A Taste of Havana in Indianapolis

Traditional Cuban music, a tropical vibe and the aroma of authentic eats greets diners at the door as they enter Taste of Havana. The eatery, located in Indianapolis’ lively Broad Ripple neighborhood, has been serving up Cuban cuisine since 2013, specializing in Cuban sandwiches, pastelitos and coffee.

Humble Beginnings

It was family that inspired Taste of Havana’s owner Jorge Chalgub to become an entrepreneur.

Chalgub grew up in Cuba but moved to Miami at the age of 14. When his youngest daughter was preparing to start elementary school, he decided he wanted her to grow up in a safer city.

“I use to travel for work and stop in Indianapolis, and I liked the city,” said Chalgub. “When we moved here it was one of the lowest crime cities in the United States, it was a no brainer.”

When his daughter completed her second year of college and was in the process of figuring out her career goals, Chalgub, who managed food for Miami International Airport before moving to Indianapolis, wanted to expose her to the restaurant business.

“We opened it up. It started really small, just half of the space we have today. We didn’t have a lot of capital, and I figured if it works we could keep growing,” said Chalgub.

His gamble paid off. Taste of Havana has rave review on both Google and Yelp and attracts a diverse mix of clientele in an area known for quirky shops, bars and entertainment venues.

“I like to think we are very original,” said Chalgub. “This is not a cheap Cuban meal, it’s old school, the way it was when I was a teenager.”

Eclectic Eats

Taste of Havana manages to stay affordable without sacrificing quality. Cuban sandwiches start at $7.50 and include ham, turkey, and vegetarian options. Chalgub says the most popular menu item is the pork.

“Pork is all about the seasoning, and one of the reasons our pork is popular is because it is extremely tender.” said Chalgub.
While at Taste of Havana, I had the opportunity to try their fall-off-the-bone pork, as well as one of three Cuban lunch bowls.

I selected the Pollo En Plancha, which consisted of grilled chicken marinated in lime juice, seasoned with pepper and garlic and served with white rice and black beans. I also has the opportunity to try Cafe Con Leche, a bold and rich Cuban coffee made with steamed milk and espresso shots. Not only was the food flavorful, but the prices were reasonable and the environment was friendly.

Leaving a Legacy

Through his restaurant and the relationships he has built in its surrounding community, Chalgub hopes to educate Hoosiers about Cuban culture. Decorations on the walls map the seven provinces of Cuba, and the radio plays a steady mix of Cuban music.

“It’s mambo, cha cha cha, and everybody loves salsa, but salsa back in the day was about enjoying the music. We have Afro-fcuban, some of the country music, and boogaloo,” said Chalgub. “I want people to feel like they are not in Indiana anymore when they come in here, especially in the winter. I want something bright, loud and proud.”

To Chalgub, operating Taste of Havana is his way of honoring his family name while educating the community about his culture.

“Not everybody has the same dream, and I know profit is very important, but in my case it’s all about my name, my reputation, my quality,” said Chalgub. “People need to know that Cuba is a a beautiful, gorgeous island with great people in it … It’s a tropical paradise with upbeat, very happy people.”

Taste of Havana

815 Broad Ripple Ave,
Indianapolis, IN 46220
Tel: (317) 559-4369
Email:cuban_sand@live.com

Keshia McEntire is an Indianapolis based journalist. She loves covering the arts and the humanities, and has a soft spot for activism and youth issues. She enjoys stories that make people do a double take or rethink preconceived notions.

Check out her website here.

Pera Turkish Kitchen & Bar

When you walk into Pera Turkish Kitchen & Bar and speak to Sirac Ergun, you can sense his passion.  Sirac is the chef and co-owner of Pera. He opened Pera in 2017 with his brother Ahmet. They are from Sanliurfa which is in eastern Turkey bordering Syria, Iraq, and Iran.

Sirac and Ahmet’s long and winding journey to America took them first to Istanbul, where in 1998 they opened Oceans 7, a seafood restaurant with their 5 bothers. Sirac’s dream had always been to open a restaurant in the US so that he could share his traditions and culture. In 2000, with $100 in his pocket, he moved to the United States. He worked 2-3 jobs simultaneously in Italian, Turkish, and Kurdish restaurants gaining the knowledge and money he would need to open his very own. His hard work paid off! Ahmet joined him in 2011, and they opened Pera in May 2017 after working for 17 years at others’ restaurants.

Pera is named after a vibrant district in Istanbul full of enticing eateries. It is found on the site of a former Turkish restaurant that had been there for 30 years. The brothers worked hard to rebuild the restaurant from the ground up, both its reputation and the ambience. They faced a huge challenge in welcoming back the former patrons and appealing to a wider demographic. Fortunately for us, Sirac doesn’t shy away from any challenge.  He felt that his delicious food and excellent service would quickly bring customers in and back, and boy was he right!

Pera is located on Broadway in the heart of the Lakeview neighborhood in Chicago. Lakeview is a hip, yuppie area and one of the fiercest battlegrounds in Chicago for restaurants, with one located every few doors.  How does Pera survive and even thrive in this heated environment?  Sirac says, “Having so much competition just makes me work harder and have to be better than my competitors.”  He knows he has to differentiate, and does it so well.  He showers his guests with genuine Turkish hospitality ensuring that people walk in as customers but leave as friends.  His approach with his customers is to “break the ice” by leading with the magic of Turkey by bringing the sounds, scents, flavors and loves of a people whose roots go back for centuries.  His approach to food is to take the same dishes that other restaurants serve and make them unquestionably unique and exceptional.  For example, the hummus served is blended with red beets and the falafel is stuffed with goat cheese.  Although it takes longer, he chops the kebab meat by hand, yielding a far superior taste.  Sirac uses fresh dill.  He prepares everything on a daily basis. It is easy to see that living in America for the past 18 years has not dampened his enthusiasm for the food and culture of his homeland. While his family jokes that he has become Americanized, he really is a proud Turkish man bringing the best of his heritage to his grateful American diners.

The ambiance of the restaurant is instantaneously welcoming, warm, chic, and elegant. There is Turkish tile art on the walls and handmade light fixtures from Kutahya.  The white seats give Pera a clean feel.  Sirac and his brother didn’t always agree on the ambiance but Sirac is older so he usually won out as per Turkish cultural norms.  He wanted to make the restaurant kid friendly yet appealing to adults and welcoming to people of all cultures and backgrounds.  The current project is to renovate the upstairs which will be opening in May.  That space will be for private parties for special occasions, birthday parties, showers, and every type of private party.
FOOD – Presentation is really important to Sirac.  He wants the food to be as beautiful as it is tasty.  Everything is made fresh daily and is upscale yet warm and welcoming.

Appetizers (Mezze Selection) (Top to Bottom and Left to Right):

Red beet hummus:  Sirac has used a unique family recipe to make a twist on classic hummus by adding red beets. This brings a sweet flavor to the hummus and makes it stand out. Presented beautifully on a slate platter with drops of mustard. Grilled Octopus: an octopus tentacle resting on a bed of sautéed eggplant, zucchini and bell peppers.  Beyond the beautiful presentation, the grilled octopus was flavorful and extremely tender. White bean dip: blended with dill, garlic, cumin, olive oil, and paprika served with daily baked homemade bread offered complimentary to every guest. Falafel: stuffed with goat cheese served as an appetizer with a simple bed of greens and a spicy tahini sauce. Goat cheese is unique to his restaurant and not a traditional preparation of the dish. Zucchini Beignet: perfectly crispy yet moist homemade fried veggie patties with feta cheese, fresh mint and dill served with a creamy garlic yogurt sauce.

Main Course (Top to Bottom and Left to Right):

Manti: Turkish tortellini crossed with a dumpling, stuffed with mushroom. Light and flavorful, tender pasta with a light sauce – simply delicious Siramarsir:  zucchini stuffed with filet mignon, sautéed onions, and mixed herbs served with garlic yogurt and rice. The   beef and zucchini were perfectly cooked. You will see why this is Sirac’s favorite dish. The dill in the yogurt sauce highlighted  the sweetness of the zucchini perfectly. All the elements of the dish melded wonderfully to dance on our taste buds. Lamb Kebab: Sirac is really proud of the lamb kebabs.  He marinates them overnight.  If he doesn’t have any lamb that has adequately marinated the full 24-hours, he will take the dish off the menu for the day.  He wants them to be perfectly flavored and juicy. Hunkar: This was a favorite of Sultan Suleyman’s wife, Hurrem Sultan and definitely a favorite of ours.  Beef simmered with garlic and tomato sauce is served on a bed of pureed eggplant. The tomato sauce had a deeper and darker silkiness that was well matched to the bold flavor of the meat.

Dessert:

There was a wide array of hot beverages including Turkish tea, apple tea, and Turkish coffee. Turkish coffee is cooked with the grounds and served in a small cup. The teas were all served in a beautiful clear tea cup. Kunefe:  If you want a dessert with a “wow” factor, this is for you. It delivers a succulent package, wrapped in a shredded and latticed filo dough pastry, filled with the perfect portion of mozzarella. It was served on top of a gleaming pool of syrup and sprinkled with crushed pistachios. Upon further investigation with Sirac we discovered that jasmine flower is the secret weapon of this dish. This dish is simply mind blowing. Baklava: This classic dessert paired with Turkish tea combines light and flaky texture, sticky sweetness and a mild flavor similar to earl grey to produce the perfect balance of flavors. It was served with a scoop of ice cream that at first glance was vanilla but surprised the diner with bits of apricot to add complexity to the texture. The only challenge here was making room to finish it all. For an apertif we were served Raki, a Turkish anis liquor which is best had with water and ice.

Turkish Wine:

Cankaya – a light and mildly fruity white wine reminiscent of a Chardonnay. It was the perfect accompaniment to the appetizer selection. Yakut – similar to a Merlot. Not overpowering but flavorful enough to bring out the light and fun aspects of the grape.

Visit SIRAC ERGUN:

With a wonderful smile and sense of pride Sirac tells us “The dream never ends,”. He strives to open another restaurant either in downtown Chicago or Houston.  He says  “It is all about sharing – you have to grow up together to be successful”. We are so fortunate to have shared our evening with Sirac, immersing ourselves in the food and friendships of Turkey.

VISIT:

PERA TURKISH KITCHEN AND BAR
2833 N Broadway St, Chicago, IL 60657
(773) 880-0063

This article is a group effort by the following…

Boston based Chris A. enjoys dining out with his family as often as possible. You’ll often find him and his wife on bikes enjoying New England.

Edwin P. is a Southern California native techie and vintage video game enthusiast. He enjoys playing golf and going hiking in his free time.

Shilpa R. loves everything about food and lives in the best city for it. In her home in Portland, OR she enjoys eating out and exposing her 3 year old daughter to the weird but delicious tastes of this great food city.

Susie T. resides in Austin, TX but is originally from Chicago. She showed her passion for eating from infancy much to the shock of her mother and delight of her grandmother. She loves food of every kind and is determined to try as many different types of food as possible.

Mrs B’s Reggae Café

 

Mrs B’s Reggae Café — Jamaican cuisine to delight every palate
Marilyn Forsythe / Chef Neville Forsythe

First Visit to the Restaurant

The intoxicating aroma of fresh herbs and pungent spices waft through the kitchen door to greet me as I step into the doorway of Mrs B’s Reggae Café on Broad Street. Within a few seconds, a waitress with a warm smile said hello and invited me to find a seat wherever I liked. I looked around the room and noticed a handful of customers seated at a few of the tables, nicely arranged inside the modestly spaced building. One side of the wall was painted with a mural showcasing a relaxing spot on the beach in the Caribbean.


Caribbean Mural

I found a table with four chairs by the window and made my way there. Once seated, I gazed outside and smiled, feeling content to be inside this warm café with incredible aromas reminiscent of my grandmother’s kitchen and away from the busy city street bustling with traffic. When the waitress came by to take my order, I was still trying to decide what I wanted to eat. Naturally, my first thought was to go for the jerk chicken. So I asked the waitress whose name I later learned was ‘Zina,’ the best way to combine my order of jerk chicken, seasoned cabbage and rice and peas.  With her recommendation, I was set and went for the quarter jerk chicken entree with an option of two sides; cabbage and rice and peas.


Jerk Chicken with Cabbage, Rice, and Peas

My meal came out within minutes of placing the order. It was delightful to see. My eyes feasted on the colorful array of food so artfully arranged on the plate, it looked more like an entrée one would enjoy at a fine dining restaurant than a dish from a casual bistro like this one. The fragrance from the food was absolutely intoxicating for my senses. I began with the jerk chicken and Oh my! The chicken was moist, succulent and flavorful. It had a nice, spicy and smoky taste.  Next, I was ready to sample the cabbage.  It was not at all what I expected. I was so thrilled by the taste of fresh herbs, light spices and the crispiness of the vegetable. I had never had cabbage like this before and would certainly add this to my list of favorite dishes. The rice and peas had all the right spices and was quite yummy.  I had also requested a sampling of the jerk marinade – the extra, extra, extra hot. The waitress had already informed me about the specialness of the sauce. She told me the sauce is only served upon special request because of the nature of its ingredients and the level of spicyness it holds.  I told her that I could handle it. And I added the sauce to my dish. For those who enjoy the next level of spicyness, you’ll love this sauce.  For all others, trust me when I say the sauce delivers on its name.  I kept my cold glass of water close by and sipped as I ate my meal. It was just what my palate was craving.


Handwritten Specialties Menu

The Genesis of the Restaurant

Three and a half years and counting… who knew the genesis of Mrs. B’s Reggae Café really began with serving up traditional rum cakes?

“It all started with the rum cake. I was selling the traditional Jamaican rum cakes at the Chattanooga market and working another temporary office job,” Marilyn recalls.

The traditional Jamaican rum cake is a popular dessert enjoyed by families during holidays and other special occasions. It is a rich, fruit-laden confection soaked in a number of liquors that may include port wine or even stout, but always include rum. Core ingredients also include butter, sugar, eggs, vanilla, nutmeg and few other spices. The addition of alcohol not only flavors this seasonal treat, but also preserves it for weeks. It’s enjoyed with a cup of coffee, tea or a customary glass of rum.  it’s a delicacy that has deep cultural and historical roots for Jamaicans.

The rum cakes Marilyn was offering at the market were selling quickly and customers were requesting more. That’s when Marilyn and her husband, Neville began researching local sites where they could not only offer desserts with rum cakes as the main attraction, but also coffee, special cocktails, sandwiches and much more.

They began scouting local sites in the heart of the city, areas with reasonable traffic and accessible to both locals and tourists. They found a spot on Broad Street just on the outskirts of St. Elmo that had housed a few different restaurants over the years, eateries that just didn’t quite catch on with the locals, so the building was up for lease. The Forsythes expressed an interest in leasing the building but had to wait until a prospective client bowed out.

“The building was up for lease and I called the property owner and he said, ‘Oh, I wish you had called me sooner.’ I have somebody looking at it. if things don’t work out I’ll let you know,” Marilyn explained.

And as luck would have it two weeks later, the Forsythes got the phone call they had been waiting for. The property manager accepted their offer to lease the building and they moved forward with their plans to get the site ready for opening day. Mrs. B’s Reggae Café, Chattanooga’s only authentic Jamaican food destination, was born on June 19, 2014.

Meet the Restaurateur

‘Amazing food’ has always been front and center for this Chattanooga restaurateur whose roots hail from Jamaica, some thirty years ago.  Marilyn Forsythe and her husband Chef Neville have called the Scenic City home for over three decades. They have three adult children and one grandson.

However, the restaurant is now their full time ‘baby.’ Chef Neville works seven days a week and his day in the restaurant kitchen begins at 9 a.m. and lasts until close to midnight. Marilyn handles the business side of things along with creating those unforgettable rum cakes. She begins her baking prep work in the early morning and has servers that setup the restaurant dining room in preparation for serving lunch and dinner. During the week, they open up Wednesday through Friday for lunch at 11 a.m.  and close briefly at 3 p.m.  Then, they open again for dinner at 4:30 p.m. until closing time at 10:00 p.m.  Saturday it’s a 12 p.m. start until 10:00 p.m. Sunday’s hours are 12 p.m. until 8 p.m.

Quality ingredients and a global culinary expertise are the common thread for the couple behind the cuisine at Mrs B’s. Chef Neville got his start as a Navy cook many years ago and fine tuned his culinary training at the Culinary Institute of America.  Also growing up in a household where good food was an everyday occurrence was just a bonus.

“Being a Navy cook was part of my roots, and it’s not just opening cans and cooking that way. I went to school and sat in a classroom and took tests to learn how to cook, keeping cultural and dietary requirements in mind,” Neville said

“You’re cooking for hundreds of people several times a day (referring to his years of service in the Navy.) It was fascinating and wonderful. Then what I learned at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) was fine tuning my cooking style. What I do now on a daily basis is to take those experiences and add my special touch.”

His wife, Marilyn who attended Shortwood Teacher’s College in Jamaica, also shares a similar background where excellent tasting food and quality ingredients go hand in hand. She still remembers as a young girl, helping her mother gather organic produce for cooking.

“I remember when I was growing up and helping my mom cook. She had a vegetable garden and she would send me out to get fresh herbs that she would put in the pot right away. And she didn’t just cook Jamaican dishes or cuisine. She also loved to try different dishes as well. She wouldn’t hesitate to grab the cookbook and try something new at least one day out of the week. That would be the day that I am flying home from school to sample her cooking. She would make these meatballs and gravy, green beans and her macaroni and cheese was out of this world.  When she makes the traditional ackee (fruit) and saltfish (traditional Jamaican dish), it’s so good. ”

With the bar set pretty high by their parents cooking, the Forsythes say creating amazing dishes with quality ingredients became part of their DNA. That’s another reason why they make their dishes from scratch. It’s a labor of love says Chef Neville but he loves it. Neville is mentoring a young chef in training who helps him with some of the kitchen preparations. He shares his culinary knowledge with him – helping to grow the next generation of dynamic chefs.

“I have a wonderful young man who works with me. He’s been with us for a year. I give him reading assignments. I recently loaned him a book called ‘How to read a French fry,’ it’s a cookbook that focuses on the science of cooking.”

For this restaurateur the science of cooking is essential to how he approaches his cooking which translates into reinventing dishes and experimenting with flavors and textures. Chef Neville travels around the country and brings back new and fresh ideas which he uses to create different dishes and provide diners with a real distinctive experience. With that, customers can expect to see innovative and unique dishes on the restaurant menu from time to time. Marilyn says customers have been very receptive to trying something new.

“We try to introduce folks to different and unique flavors. Too many people think Jamaican food is just jerk chicken or jerk pork and hot peppers. There’s so much more to it. We did a dinner last summer at the restaurant. We invited people to come in and try prepared dishes similar to what you eat at the home of a Jamaican family.  People enjoyed the experience. It was a family style dinner with everyone sitting around a big table having conversation.

The Cuisine

Every dish is made from scratch including the beef patties which is a staple at a Jamaican restaurant. Chef Neville makes the dough and rolls them out one at a time. Cooking to please varied palates takes years of experience and planning. And Jamaican cuisine can be different for every family. Some may like it hot and others may prefer a milder flavor.  There are vegetarian options and gluten free offerings as well.

Chef Neville’s Special

Let’s explore some of Chef Neville’s special creations. A visit to this unique Jamaican restaurant is not complete without a sampling of a few of Chef  Neville’s special appetizers which includes the award winning Lollipop Jerk Wings and the Reggae Rolls. For those adventurous types, a taste of De Voodoo Chicken will make your dining experience here truly unforgettable. A word of caution — it is not for the faint of heart! Take my word for it!

The Reggae Rolls which can be great for special occasions, is a play on the Jamaican reggae theme, they resemble spring rolls and are filled with various vegetables including carrots then deep fried. When you bite into it, you’ll hear a crunch sound and the flavor is full and robust.

Then there are the Lollipop Wings which are regular full size wings, cut with the bones sticking out. These are also great for parties. Chef Neville was first introduced to the idea of lollipop wings while studying at the Culinary Institute of America. He decided to bring it to Chattanooga and added his special touch. Now It’s  become quite a hit with customers.  And it’s no wonder–the wings have won many awards.


Lollipop Wings & Reggae Rolls

The Jerk Stuffed Burger is a whole lot of burger with a flavorful experience. It can easily be named the best darn burger in town. They’ve got my son’s vote and he has had many a burger both near and far.

The process for making the burger begins with a 10.5 ounce ground beef, which is then seasoned with various spices and then mixed in with chopped jerk chicken. It takes 20 minutes to prepare. It is served on a fresh bun with lettuce and tomatoes plus a side of grilled potatoes garnished with rosemary. If you’re in a hurry, the restaurateur will gladly recommend another dish. But it is worth the wait, if you can spare the time.


Jerk Stuffed Burger

One of the restaurant’s most popular dishes –De Voodoo Chicken- first appeared to Chef Neville in a dream.

“I woke up one morning and it came to me. At the time, I had no idea what it was going to be, but I knew it would be something special.  I thought about it, and drew from my culinary experiences, and then I knew what I wanted and just began creating the dish.”

What’s in the dish?  Boneless skinless chicken breasts, sautéed onions, bell peppers, hot peppers (scotch bonnet or habanera peppers – they use whichever one is available) shallots and garlic. The dish is plated with rice, sliced pineapples and fresh coconut, these help with the flavor and softens the pepper a little bit. According to Chef Neville, this dish has become their number one seller. The term Voodoo is not always warmly embraced because of its religious connotations but in this particular case, the name adds an element of mystery to the restaurant menu options.

And oh the cabbage, the cabbage is a must.  Customers rave about this side dish which takes just minutes to prepare. It takes four minutes altogether. First, you boil the cabbage in salted water for two to three minutes. Then cool it off and when a customer places the order, it is then sautéed with garlic and fresh herbs so it remains nice and crispy, not overcooked. It’s like no other cabbage dish.

The drinks are refreshing, colorful and very tasty. There are a variety of non-alcoholic beverages along with beer. And if you are in the mood for wine, the restaurant has a partnership with Imbibe, a local wine and spirits shop – customers can contact Imbibe for a recommendation on the best wine selections to pair with Jamaican dishes offered at Mrs B’s.  Since Mrs. B’s doesn’t offer wine, they invite customers to bring their own and just note there will be a small corkage fee.


The Infamous Voodoo Chicken

Making the rum cake

This is Marilyn’s specialty. She has been making rum cakes for as long as she can remember. The signature traditional rum cake is sweet, succulent and delicious. It’s so delightful that customers from California to Canada and Jamaica order them regularly, sometimes by the dozen.

“It takes a good four hours to make, between prepping, mixing and baking.  When you do something for so long you start to figure out different little things about it – the science behind it. I’m realizing certain things are going to make it even better and better. I have customers who tell me these cakes are so good and I say wait until you taste the next one.”

Staying connected and much more

Staying connected is part of what keeps Marilyn busy, besides taking care of customers. She’s made sure that Mrs. B’s Reggae Café customers can remain engaged on social media.  The restaurant has a following on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.  The Yelp reviews were organically established. Customers began posting reviews after their dining experience at Mrs B’s which have been overwhelmingly positive.  And so the Forsythes let it continue, grateful for grassroots effort which gives them insight on feedback from customers.

You can connect with and follow Mrs. B’s Reggae Café on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. A new partnership with Uber Eats set to launch in mid-March of this year will offer food delivery for customers, which the restaurateurs hope will give the business a much needed boost.

Website traffic could also see a bump. Customers can order a variety of Chef Neville’s special sauce creations online. There’s always an option to call the restaurant for a more personalized service. They can package several at a time and minimize shipping costs.

There is a steady stream of customers but like any business, there’s always room for growth.  Catering has provided some additional business. In fact, the restaurant receives requests for catering parties and special events from time to time. However, they limit their catering orders so they can focus their attention on restaurant customers — ensuring that each customer that walks through the restaurant doors enjoys a unique dining experience. When the Forsythes do agree to cater an event, they first invite the client to come in to discuss their catering needs. This allows them to make that personal connection which is such a part of their warm Jamaican hospitality.


Jamaican International Soccer Team’s Signatures From Their Visit

Words of wisdom from Mrs B’s for those trying Jamaican food for the first time

Just come in with an open mind…

The first time people come into the restaurant, Marilyn Forsythe says she tells customers to start with the most popular dish from Jamaica which for many is jerk chicken or jerk pork. Other well known cuisine are rice and peas and curry goat.

“Start with those basics then taste and explore other dishes when you visit again.  If you live here in town, it means you’ll be back again, because the restaurant offers a wide variety of dishes that will please just about any palate. Not everything is hot but everything is flavorful.”

“I had a couple come in one time and ask me, what is the best thing on the menu? And I said, everything is amazing. I’m not just saying that. You have to decide to try a dish and then the next time venture out and try something else,” she said.

An open invitation

You’re invited to embark upon a unique dining adventure… Chef Neville and Marilyn promise an unforgettable dining experience where quality ingredients and amazing food will bring you back again and again.

Mrs B’s Reggae Café is unassuming. When you walk in, you’ll take in the view quickly and will probably briefly gaze upon the mural painted by a local artist featured on the right hand side of the wall, showcasing a Caribbean theme. The scene paints a picture of a relaxing spot along the beach on the coast. If you happen to visit during the evening, you will most likely hear the upbeat tempo of Jamaican music playing in the background.

Expect the light hearted laughter and bubbly warm personalities of the restaurant owners and wait staff to make you feel truly at home. Yeah mon!!!

Visit Mrs. B’s Reggae Cafe at

3103 Broad St, Chattanooga, TN 37408

Phone: (423) 702-5808

About the Author:
Chinyere’s WordPress Blog
Chinyere Ubamadu is a marketing communications professional and freelance writer in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She is a food enthusiast who enjoys global cuisine and traveling. Her travels and foodie adventures have taken her to four continents. When she’s not applying her creativity and problem solving skills to meet business needs, she’s challenging herself hiking, running or practicing yoga.

 

Yemen Kitchen

Meet the Restaurateur

Abdul Al Rammah, Owner of Yemen Kitchen

The irresistible fragrance of sizzling onions and garlic perfumes the small kitchen where Abdul Al Rammah stands at his stove, deftly stirring several pans at once. The Yemeni-born chef adds ground beef and creamy fava beans to one, chunks of fish and vegetables to another.

He works 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, making homemade dishes from his native country in his tiny restaurant on the edge of San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. The care he puts into each dish, the subtle spicing and the classic combinations appeal to those who remember this food from their childhoods far away and those who have never been there.

Al Rammah opened Yemen Kitchen in June 2015, it’s the culmination of a life working in food service but it’s not his first venture into restaurants. Pretty impressive for a man who admits that growing up in the town of Albeda with his parents and 7 siblings, he couldn’t even make tea. In keeping with the traditional family structure, his mother and sisters took care of all the cooking for the men. “I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but now I do,” he says smiling.

NEW YORK

In 1986, at the age of 22, while working as a clerk in an electric utility office in Yemen, Al Rammah took a vacation to visit his brother, who was attending college in New Mexico. After two months there, he ventured on to New York City to visit friends and they convinced him to stay on in “the land of opportunities.” In an always-busy Manhattan deli he began learning about American culture by working 12 hours a day, making sandwiches from 7pm -7am. Then from 8am until noon, he attended English classes. After a meal, a few hours sleep and a shower, he would head back to the deli. It was a grueling schedule for a little pay. “But I enjoyed making food and I never got bored,” says Al Rammah. He stayed New York for one year.

MICHIGAN

One day, a man from the sizable Yemeni community near Detroit, Michigan contacted him. Al Rammah had achieved renown as a star soccer player on a successful team when he lived in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a. The man knew him by reputation and invited him to come to Michigan to join their team in the Michigan-Ontario league. This was in 1987, before soccer was “discovered” by the American public in 1994, when the US first hosted the FIFA World Cup.

Al Rammah was happy to accept the offer. “Soccer was in my blood,” he says. “It was good team with a lot of nationalities, including members from Italy, Albania, Lebanon and Iraq.”  He also coached the Yemen youth club (ages 19-21).  “But you can’t play soccer all day,” he says. “So I started working at the restaurant owned by the head of the Yemeni community. We served American food, burgers and omelets. I learned a lot from the experience. Work in the mornings, soccer in the afternoons.”

He loved Michigan and lived there almost 20 years. He put down roots, got married, got his papers and because he loved cooking and saw it as a career path, attended the culinary arts program at Macomb Community College in 1995. The next year, he opened his first restaurant, Al-Rasheed, in Hamtramck, and with a partner followed up with three more in the next few years.

SET UP NEW RESTAURANTS

Al Rammah realized that what he really enjoyed, and was quite good at, was the process of starting a new restaurant project from scratch. From installing a ventilation system, figuring out the menu, printing business cards and flyers, to getting the word of mouth out to attract new customers. “Sometimes I worked very hard for two or three months doing all the preparations, before I ever got paid.” In one five year-period, he was on the move. He helped out a friend who had a Middle Eastern restaurant in Indiana for a year and returned to work with a restaurant in Detroit. Then he opened “Sana’a Restaurant” in Brooklyn, but after three years sold his share, and helped out at a friend’s restaurant in Port Huron, Michigan.

SAN FRANCISCO

In July 2011, the owner of a struggling Yemeni restaurant in San Francisco heard about Al Rammah and called him in Port Huron to come help with his restaurant. “I didn’t know him, but he offered to pay my flight,” says Al Rammah. “So I said sure, I’ll check it out. I came straight from the airport to his restaurant and never went back.”

The good weather and the mix of friendly people from everywhere appealed to Al Rammah. He became a chef at Yemeni Restaurant. “After six months, the owner insisted I become a partner. He needed my experience and wanted to keep me, so he made me a ¼ partner. But after two years, I found I was doing most of the work and sold my share.” Then he worked for two years as a chef at Café Med in the Financial District.

“I have a bad habit,” Al Rammah says with a laugh, “I always want to open another restaurant, so I looked around for a space.” He found his present space, a former Brooklyn Pizza spot, on Jones Street (which also spent time as a Mexican Yucatan eatery).

It still sports the red and white Brooklyn Sign outside. “I haven’t had time to change it but I painted over where it said  “Pizza” it now says “Halal” with my name in Arabic writing,” explains Alrammah. (It also sports the ever-meaningful image of a soccer ball.)

Yemen Kitchen’s cozy space has three tables and three stools. The walls are sparsely decorated with an oud (a pear-shaped lute), a sword, traditional Arabic cloth, plus framed photos of his old soccer teams in Yemen. “Some people come in and recognize me,” Al Rammah admits, “we were that well known.”

The afternoons can find a mix of regular customers (from Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Sudan as well as Yemen) who appreciate the homemade food and sweet, cinnamon spiced tea. They catch up and chat about news, politics and life. When it first opened, Yemen Kitchen had 80% Yemeni customers, some, who in their excitement, came several times a day. But nowadays, thanks to good reviews on Yelp and a small article in the San Francisco Chronicle, the balance of American customers outweighs the Yemenis. Take-out orders are popular too.

Yemen Kitchen is open 10am-10pm, and Al Rammah cooks all the meals himself. Besides the regular lunch and dinner customers, two to three times a week, he cooks extra servings for catering gigs. Customers pick up food for 30-50 people in schools, offices or social gatherings and once in a while Al Rammah prepares enough for several hundred guests at a Yemeni wedding.

The dishes are listed on two menus: his original faded blackboard with only Arabic lettering, flowers and of course, a soccer ball and a typical folding menu with English.  Al Rammah confides that both menus contain the same “inside jokes.” A handful of dishes are named after famous Yemeni personalities, actors and comedians. For example, Dihbashy (beans and eggs) is actually the name of a famous Yemeni actor. “My Yemeni customers see that and laugh,” adds Al Rammah.

EAT WITH HANDS

In Yemen, like many neighboring countries, food is eaten with the hands (specifically the right hand), by tearing off a piece of bread and using it to scoop up the meat and sauce. “Here is like a little Yemen, and it feels like home, so of course customers eat with the hands here too.” He points to the back. “We have a hand-washing sink, with soap and paper towels. ” Sometimes Americans see other diners eating with their hands and they want to see what it’s like.  “Sure, Al Rammah says, “I encourage them. You’ll taste more with your hands than a spoon and fork. Try it, you will like it.”

THE CUISINE

Yemeni cuisine is unique, and although there are influences from Turkish and Indian cultures, I was unprepared for how distinct it would be from the Middle Eastern cuisine of its neighbors.  Going into the restaurant, my pre-conceived expectation was that it would be very similar to what I call generic Arabic cuisine: simple and flavorful, but bland compared to Indian or Thai food.  Wrong!

We ordered chicken kabsah, roast lamb, hummus and tawah bread.  The hummus was extremely creamy and was amazing with the tawah, a griddled whole-wheat flatbread, similar to the Indian paratha.  The roast lamb featured succulent chunks of marinated lamb, roasted to perfection and served with basmati rice and a vegetable stew. The accompanying sahawiq, tomatoes, green chili peppers, garlic and cilantro blended together to a salsa-like consistency, allowed one to ‘kick it up a notch’, should they prefer a little more heat.  No such augmentation was called for with the kabsah, a meat and rice dish similar to an Indian biryani or Arab mandi, but distinct from both.  It was a spicy blend of chicken and basmati rice, redolent with chopped Serrano peppers and delicious.

Our second visit we decided to begin with the national dish of Yemen, saltah.  The base is a stew of meat and vegetables or maraq to which is added sahawiq, and the piece the resistance, holba or whipped fenugreek puree.  The stew is served piping hot in a stone bowl and is best eaten with one’s fingers using pieces of tawah or pita as utensils.  This was my favorite dish by far, with the holba providing an herbaceous counterpoint to the unctuous lamb. We also ordered zanbakah, a fragrant stew of ground beef and pureed fava beans topped with chopped onions, chili peppers and cilantro, again eaten with pieces of tawah. The roast chicken platter comes with a generous portion of bone-in marinated chicken roasted till the skin is browned and crispy and served with turmeric scented basmati rice and vegetables.

Unfortunately, we did not get to try any of the breakfast dishes or desserts.  That is for next time- and, yes, I am more than willing to repeatedly venture forth into the nether recesses of the Tenderloin for more.  Go ahead, don’t let the rather colorful neighborhood put you off- I promise you the food, and Al Rammah’s hospitality will be well worth the effort!

SITUATION NOW IN YEMEN

One can’t talk about Yemeni food without acknowledging the famine, malnutrition, lack of clean water and cholera epidemic that has hit the country hard since the political crisis that began in 2011 and civil war that started in 2015. It is presently the poorest country in the Middle East.

Although, some of his siblings are still in Yemen, he has not been able to visit since 2010 “it’s not safe to go there anymore.” He is thankful that his family members are all right for now, and explains, “It’s worse for the poor people who don’t live in big cities and have no relatives to turn to. There is basically no government, no social system in place to help them. The government is just corrupt and doesn’t take care of its people.”

Yemen is an ancient land in the Middle East with settlements in its green hills and mountains, going back at least 5,000 years, to before King Solomon’s time. It is the land where the Queen of Sheba is said to have lived. Its long seacoast borders The Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Several centuries before Islam, Yemen was renowned for its painting, temples, palaces and irrigation system.

Al Rammah describes one of its most beautiful spots, the famous mud brick “skyscrapers” in Shibam, Hadramaut. Most of the buildings in this walled city, with seven-story tower dwellings rising dramatically out of a cliff, date back to the 16th century, some even hundreds of years earlier. It is recognized on the UN World Heritage list.

Al Rammah would like to employ Yemeni cooks to help out in the kitchen since they know the cuisine well, but they are not that easy to find, so he takes on and trains others, at present, one cook is from India, the other from Tennessee. Both of them are eager to learn to cook the delicious, classic Yemeni dishes Al Rammah seemingly effortlessly turns out. Meanwhile they chop endless onions, plate and serve the meals, bus and wash dishes. For now, Al Rammah cooks his special dishes everyday for whoever comes in his restaurant, enjoying feeding friends and strangers alike. “I can’t take a vacation, “he says. “It’s good I only live a block away; this restaurant is like my second home.” Then he adds thoughtfully, “But I am thinking that I might just open another restaurant too.”

Visit Abdul Al Rammah:

Yemen Kitchen

219 Jones Street • San Francisco, CA 94102

415.214.3575