Chef Abu Hani is back in the kitchen at Sheeba Mandi House | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

Chef Abu Hani is back in the kitchen at Sheeba Mandi House 

North Park has a new Yemeni restaurant from a veteran Yemeni restaurateur.

click to enlarge Mutapq and haneeth chicken

Mutapq and haneeth chicken

Matthew Schwerin for Chicago Reader

Abu Hani opened his first restaurant in 2000, when he was an ambitious 17-year-old student at Theodore Roosevelt High School.

Yemen Restaurant, situated on the corner of Lawrence and Avers in Albany Park, was Chicago's first to serve the food of the southernmost tip of the Arabian Peninsula. But it was more than that. It was a place where the small Yemeni community that had settled in the neighborhood gathered to play dominoes, shoot pool, drink chai, and just hang out—a least until Hani graduated, got married, and found more gainful employment driving trucks.

Yemeni restaurants have come and gone in the years since then, and Hani remains the progenitor of the cuisine in Chicago (he discouraged me from calling him its godfather, but still). He launched his second restaurant, and">Shibam City, in 2009, and ran it till last year, when he sold it, intending to move on. But some monkeys you never shake off your back.

"I wanted to get out, but it pulled me back in," says Hani, who's now 36. "Once you're in the kitchen you never get out."

His first kitchen was his mother's. Growing up in Mayfair, he used to help her cook elaborate feasts to break the Ramadan fast. After marrying, he and his wife would take annual months-long trips back to Yemen, where he learned at his grandmother's side in the city of Aden, just west of the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, which divides the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. That position made the port a necessary stop on the historic spice route, exposing the country's cuisine to its two main influences: the Ottoman and Mughal Empires.

The latter contributed biryani, which in turn spawned a whole family of meaty rice dishes: zurbian, kabsa, haneeth, and most notably mandi—big, boney hunks of lamb or chicken cooked underground or in a clay tandoor oven, mounded over simply spiced rice, and eaten with flatbread blistered in the same oven.

All these variants are on the menu at Sheeba Mandi House, Hani's latest restaurant. He'd opened a small spot on Devon earlier in the summer, but demand was so great he had to find a larger space. In early September, Sheeba took over the onetime North Park convenience store that most recently housed the Indo-Chinese WokNChop.

If you're new to Yemeni food these heaping platters might appear indistinguishable from each other. But there are key differences. According to Hani, the meat-and-rice dish haneeth takes hours longer to cook than mandi, and its foundational spice mix, hawaij (a blend of a dozen ingredients including cumin, clove, black pepper, turmeric, cardamom, and fenugreek), makes it generally more complex and variable.

It's fenugreek that's responsible for the dramatic effects posed by the burbling bowls of saltah and fahsa, meat and root vegetable stews topped with an aromatic fenugreek foam, a trick hundreds of years older than Ferran Adrià. Hani is serving those along with less common stewy dishes such as burr-mah, built on the lamb broth that's the by-product of mandi, and agda, which has a thicker, saucier base of tomato and onions.

Among more common pan-Arabic mezes such as hummus and baba ghanoush, there's the snacktastic finger food mutapq (sometimes spelled murtabak), griddled pouches of thin flatbread enveloping tomato-sauced meat or eggs dosed with a blend of mayo and melted cheese. At Sheeba the beef version conjures up a kind of proto cheesesteak. If you ask me, Hani could sell nothing but mutapq and the restaurant would still be a destination.

As it stands, there's a fairly broad array of grilled plates built around kebabs, lamb chops, or whole butterflied fish, with sandwiches at lunch and a breakfast menu that includes the scrambled Yemeni version of shakshuka as well as mashed favas (foul), sauteed kidney beans (fasolia), and meatier sautes such as a liver-heart-kidney organ trio and megalgal, a kind of curried shawarma with tomatoes, pepper, and onions. Desserts ma'soob and arika are puddinglike blends of bread, honey, cream, and nigella seeds baked with bananas or dates, respectively.

Hani still isn't content with sitting still in Albany Park. He also operates a food truck that parks at the O'Hare taxi staging zone. Don't get your hopes up about your next trip to the airport, though—you can't access it unless you have a medallion. Haneeth, saltah, and mutapq are much more at home in Albany Park anyway. v

Correction: This review has been amended to correctly reflect the location of Sheeba Mandi House. It is in North Park rather than Albany Park.

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