172 Atlantic Avenue (betwn. Clinton & Court Sts.) Brooklyn
Weary from too little sleep and what I suspect is a developing protein deficiency, I lurch to where yellow cabs line Atlantic Avenue at 3 a.m. in Brooklyn. A door halfway below street level swings open. Men clenching Styrofoam cups ascend a few steps while someone holds the door for me, and I slip inside the warm den.
The walls are imitation stone archways framing oil-painted scenes of mountain, desert and oasis. Under low ceilings, hungry diners pull apart flat rounds of fresh bread and scoop up food from dishes in the middle of faux-marble tables.
I collapse into a chair in an empty corner and face the flat-screen tuned to “Al Jazeera.” Wearing a smile beneath his mustache, the waiter comes bearing a cup of sweet tea that tastes like cloves. I hope this will cure my head.
I’ve been here before and order without seeing the menu. While I wait for my food, I notice an old friend has joined me again, like so many recent, weary times. His dry-rotted army fatigues are rolled up to the elbows and the bottom of the black balaclava that is stretched over his head is flipped up above his chin so he can smoke his pipe.
“This reminds me of a place in Beirut I blew up in the ’80s,” grumbles Capitán Segundo Yuyo. He speaks from the center of a haze. “I found out they were frying their falafel in beef tallow.” More war stories from my militant vegetarian comrade.
“This restaurant is Yemeni,” I correct El Yuyo, as plates are laid on the table. For Semitic standards like humus ($4.95) and baba ghanoush ($4.95), Hadramout does fine (though better can be eaten at other regional restaurants down the block). Hadramout’s hard-to-find specialties, however, are peerless.
The mulikhia ($4.95) comes as a bowl filled with a swampy liquid saturated with minced, bright green jute leaves. It reminds me of the fresh-tasting gumbo vert that can be found in Louisiana during Lent.
The selta ($4.95) is a bubbling, brown vegetable stew served in a black mini-caldron, emitting the bitter aroma of fenugreek. This age-old recipe has a stiff, yellowish foam atop it—one that I would like to shove in the face of the avant-garde chefs who act like they invented the stuff.
Always careful in El Yuyo’s presence, I remember to order this dish vegetarian or else it would have come with little bits of meat and someone might be killed. As we eat together, he puffs in between chews. I wonder if Yuyo’s pipe-smoking will disturb the other patrons, but they don’t seem to notice.
His favorite dish is the foul (pronounced fool) moudammas ($5.95), which is a thick, spicy concoction of creamed fava beans that reminds me of Southwestern chili. For something beany but very different in texture, I have also ordered the fassoulia ($5.95), red kidney beans that are firm and nutty instead of creamed, and that come pan-fried with onions and hot peppers.
We eat everything on the table with fresh bread instead of silverware. These baked beauties are similar, in fact, to Grimaldi’s best pizza dough, and they’re nearly as large as a pie. They are soft and full of air pockets. When they arrive, stacked on a steel platter, they’re almost too hot to touch, but as they cool, they become crisp and crackly.
The foul seems to have quelled El Yuyo, until at a table directly across from us a plate of baked chicken appears.
“That bird’s family cries tonight, if they too have not already been butchered by the murdering machine,” he says through his teeth.
I wonder how Yuyo would react if I told him that I had eaten meat not so long ago.
“Yuyo, don’t judge when you are with me,” I scold. “It is not the way of the Whorebivore.”
“You are crazy in the extreme,” he snorts.
“Perhaps, Yuyo. But to be a Whorebivore is the opposite of extreme,” I say. “It is to try to be a vegetarian without becoming an other, and to not attribute otherness or feel anger toward those who choose meat. A Whorebivore seeks places where we can be seated together and share the most delicious nourishments.”
“You came to re-educate me with your sermons, Walmsley, or you came for the jute?”
“I’ll leave the declarations to you, Capitán SegundoYuyo. I’m here to dine promiscuously and to report back.”
The waiter brings another cup of tea and my head subsides.
Read more reviews of vegetarian eats at Whorebivore.com.