As an agricultural center, Yemen produced the world's first coffee. As a center of music, it produced Ofra Haza, once known as the Yemenite Madonna. But in Tel Aviv, where much of the huge and ancient Yemenite-Jewish community has gathered in the last hundred years, Yemenite culture may be most appreciated around dinner time: Yemenite soups and salads - and the ubiquitous peppery Yemenite spice blend called hawaij, fragrant with cardamom and turmeric - can be found almost everywhere in Israel.
In Los Angeles, you can find Yemenite dishes on the menu of about a dozen Israeli restaurants - Yemenite lamb soup is almost as easy to find as falafel. But the only full-on Yemenite restaurant in town may be Magic Carpet, a brightly decorated kosher restaurant on a block of actual carpet showrooms, in the heart of the Pico-Robertson district.
The decoration of the dining room, as over-the-top as any in Los Angeles, follows a sort of wedding theme, with Navajoesque Yemenite wedding baskets affixed to the ceiling, Chuck Close-size photographs of a Yemenite mikvah ceremony lining the walls, and a life-size mannequin of a Yemenite woman, a basket affixed to her head, grinning from her perch against a wall. Sometimes, every male customer in the restaurant will be wearing a yarmulke, and a banquet table full of revelers will be dancing and singing Hebrew songs.
Magic Carpet is widely considered to be the best kosher restaurant in Los Angeles. It is also probably the best Middle Eastern restaurant of any sort on the Westside, easily the equal of Hollywood's Marouch and Alhambra's Middle East.
In Tel Aviv, Yemenite restaurants are known for their bewildering array of eggplant condiments, and Magic Carpet may have more kinds of cool eggplant salad than all other restaurants in town put together. There are a coarse sort of eggplant pate and slivers of marinated eggplant; a fiery-hot eggplant jam called madbucha and a cool salad of chopped eggplant with tomato; garlicky Bulgarian eggplant and a smooth, unctuous eggplant in tahini, which is the restaurant's version of baba ghanoush. On the eggplant combination plate, the salads are arranged like spokes on a wheel. And for another couple of bucks, you can add Moroccan spiced carrots, hummus and the house's pale, minted version of tabbouleh, much heavier on the bulgur wheat than the Lebanese tabboulehs you may have tasted.
It took me a surprisingly long time to discover this restaurant given that my first apartment, a tiny walkup over a kosher butcher shop, was just a couple of blocks from here, and I assumed I knew the neighborhood cold. But if I had tasted Magic Carpet's melawach back then, I might never have moved - a bronzed, pizza-size fried Yemenite pancake that seems to have a hundred levels of wheatiness, a thousand layers of crunch and the taste of clean oil, melawach is one of the greatest dishes in Los Angeles. You can do practically anything with a melawach, and Magic Carpet does, topping it with cinnamon and toasted nuts or crumbles of ground beef, a spicy confit of sauteed vegetables or an omelet.
The best way to eat melawach, perhaps, is one of the simplest: sprinkled with the spice mixture called za'atar, whose sumac-tartness and wild-thyme pungency marry perfectly with the rich denseness of the pancake. (Melawach with za'atar is a kissing cousin to the za'atar bread Armenians eat for breakfast.) Melawach, eggplant and a bowl of the divine lentil soup - who could ask for more?
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The hot appetizer plate includes warm stuffed grape leaves; the ubiquitous Moroccan "cigars," crisp thumbs of fried pastry stuffed with a highly spiced meat paste; and some of the best falafel balls you will ever taste. The margaz, tiny, coarse lamb sausages similar to the Moroccan merguez, are quite spicy; the bland little kibbe, fried bulgur-wheat capsules stuffed with beef and pine nuts, are not.
Unfortunately, as at almost all Middle Eastern restaurants, the main courses are almost beside the point: juiceless lamb shanks, dryish Yemenite chicken stained yellow with saffron and turmeric, tilapia fillets glazed with chile-intensive tomato sauce. The beef dishes on the menu are marked with asterisks denoting "Lubavitch meat," which I assume is as kosher as it is possible for beef to get, but the kebabs and the cardamom-laced beef stew are tough, without much flavor.
Desserts at Magic Carpet run toward the mousse cake and the tiramisu, and, since this is a kosher restaurant, toward the dairy-free versions of those. Still, as this will not be the lightest repast you have ever eaten, why not finish with a pot of fresh-mint tea, as refreshing an end to a meal as can be imagined.
8566 W. Pico Blvd.; (310) 652-8507. Open for breakfast and lunch Sun.-Fri. and for dinner Sun.-Thurs. Dinner for two, food only, $15-$35. Recommended dishes: falafel, Yemenite lentil soup, salad combination, melawach with za'atar and sesame. No alcohol. Takeout and delivery. Glatt kosher. Street parking. MC, V.