Neighbourhood: St James
Address: 1785 Portage Ave
People of Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and other Arab nations have been trading spices and perfecting recipes for more than 2,000 years, but closer to home, increased cravings for quick, healthy and inspired food options have made Middle Eastern fast-casual eateries like Yafa Café ever more popular.
This brightly-lit West Portage Ave space arouses all senses. The herbal fragrance of smoke from hookah pipes, sans tobacco or nicotine, fills the air. Orange and blue walls and sitar-laden tunes are the backdrop to a colourful crowd of diners.
The key to Levantine cuisine is an abundance of fresh produce and spices. Grilled breads, smashed bean dips and spit-roasted meats are simply made and eating requires little more than a dish and a pair of hands. Begin with a spread of traditional dips. Foule Mudammas, an Egyptian staple made from fava beans, is chunky and hearty, offering an earthy hint of cumin. Bitter olive oil and warm red pepper paste swirl atop creamy white Labneh. Mutabal is a zingy purée of smoky roasted eggplant, nutty tahini and tangy yoghurt. Lebanese Tabouleh salad is a bright accompaniment to a perfect falafel – crunchy yet soft on the inside.
Savoury manakeesh, a beloved dish known as the pizza of the Arab world, is a chewy baked flatbread topped with meats or spices. A thin layer of peppery tomato paste covers the Za’atar-Shatta variety, which is then sprinkled with thyme, marjoram, sumac and sesame. The Sfeiha option is topped with rich, finely ground beef and invigorating mint, with undertones of citrusy sumac. The “Spinach Triangle” is a calzone-like formation, a folded pillowy white pita bread stuffed with tangy spinach.
Like appetizers, main courses are also shareable. Koshary is a robust vegetarian dish of rice, black lentils and chickpeas topped with super-spicy tomato sauce and sweet caramelized onions. A house specialty, the Makloubeh is a chicken dinner literally turned upside-down. Dig through aromatic rice and crunchy toasted almond slivers to find juicy baked chicken, served bone-in and skin-off.
It’s easy to get carried away by the six-page food menu, but the tasting journey should not end there. Yafa boasts an extensive coffee and drink menu. Sip a comforting honey cardamom latte whilst indulging in a Warbat, a flaky pastry with a velvety delicious eggless custard filling, bathed in floral orange blossom syrup.