Yalla | Seattle Times Critic’s Pick | ★★½ | Middle Eastern | $ | Capitol Hill | 1510 E. Olive Way, Seattle; no phone; yallaseattle.com; 4 p.m.-1 a.m. every day (lunch coming soon); to-go only
Chef Taylor Cheney keeps a jar of za’atar at the walk-up window of her tiny Olive Way spot, Yalla. “People were asking like a hundred times a day what it is,” she says, so why not let them smell it? Wild thyme gives the Levantine spice mix an off-the-beaten-path herbaceousness, sesame adds toasty-warmth and “sumac is really citrusy,” Cheney says. Yalla’s za’atar saj wrap is a possibly perfect expression of it: a big round of saj — housemade, traditional Levantine Arabic flatbread — loaded with lots of za’atar, cucumber, tomato, green olives and mint leaves, griddled until just blistering, exuding now-warm, herby olive oil. The saj (pronounced like the end of “massage”) gets almost-blackened crispy spots, but stays stretchy and pliant. The mint and vegetables lend freshness and crunch, with a whole olive adding an occasional extra-salty hit. The olive oil enriches and spreads the za’atar’s flavor, turned smoky, nutty and dusky but with a pinging brightness, too, reminding you of different parts of your tongue’s existence.
Cheney knows za’atar is foreign to some, as is the notion of eating a wrap with just herbs and veggies inside. But once those people try it, they start to understand the way her 2-year-old nephew did, intuitively, when she gave him za’atar saj. “He ate it super-fast!” she says. At Yalla, you can add a mixture of mozzarella (sounds inauthentic, but widely used) and feta to any wrap, and Cheney says, “There’s a special place in my heart for za’atar and cheese.” She ate that all the time when she was in Lebanon — “the ultimate breakfast” — or saj with za’atar plus labneh, the creamy, fluffy, lightly salty strained yogurt. At Yalla, she says, “People who are Lebanese walk by not even hungry and have to stop” when they see these “super-nostalgic flavor combinations.”
Cheney opened to-go-only Yalla this past March, in the same triangular storefront that incubated the hit Malaysian hit restaurant Kedai Makan and chef Monica Dimas prior to her restaurant Little Neon Taco. Cheney’s from California but grew up in Tacoma; her impressive résumé includes Lampreia, Harvest Vine, Marjorie, Mistral Kitchen and La Bête. A place serving Arabic cuisine seems an unlikely endeavor, but Cheney says she was first drawn into the food by neighbors in Seattle from Saudi Arabia. They fed her so often and generously, she wanted to return the favor; even though they said it didn’t work like that, she made them chicken kabsa from a recipe she found online. “It was really bad, looking back,” she says, but she kept at it, learning from her new friends, devouring cookbooks and heading down the YouTube recipe rabbit hole. What would become Yalla began as a Mistral Kitchen pop-up seven years ago; she then moved to Egypt, returned, and continued it in a number of locations while still traveling more, back to Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.
Cheney never wanted to run “a fancy restaurant,” she says. “It was always the idea of a to-go place, because that’s the food that honestly stuck with me the most.” She talks about the saj bakeries, “an amazing falafel shop, awesome foul for breakfast … To me, that’s where my passion is: the really homey, simple — bread, hummus, pickles.” She lives in an apartment across the street from the Yalla space and says she “couldn’t even believe it” when it became available. “It was like, pinch me.”
Cheney’s dream only came true, she is quick to acknowledge, with the financial help of friend, mentor and “touchstone” Nadia Tommalieh, star of Instagram and local cooking instructor (at The Pantry at Delancey, among other places). Cheney wants to give credit where credit is due, and she addresses the issue of cultural appropriation directly. “I would never call it my food,” she says, “because it’s not my food.”
Cheney expresses great gratitude for “the connections and generosity of the Arab community in Seattle” — her friends here who set her up immediately with their own friends and family on her travels. “When I go to the Middle East, I hang out with someone’s cousin, grandma, aunt … ” It’s this “unmatched” hospitality — plus, one gathers, her own sunny, curious, appreciative personality — that’s brought time-honored, family-style recipes into her repertoire. She refined her saj technique by sitting and watching the pros. After she met “Man’oushe” cookbook author Barbara Abdeni Massaad at an Elliott Bay reading (and, terrifyingly, both Massaad and Padma Lakshmi showed up at her pop-up), Massaad hooked her up to cook at Beirut restaurant Tawlet. Cheney’s hope is to “just show as much respect for the cuisine as possible,” honoring it by keeping it traditional.
At Yalla, Cheney’s helped by Inaam Bashir, a friend who came from Gaza, then had to go back to Egypt because her visa ran out, then returned and needed work just as Cheney was opening. (If you see a little girl hanging around, that’s Bashir’s daughter, Heba, who’s finally joined her after a year and a half.) Bashir and Cheney make all the flatbread, kneading and stretching it by hand. Saj is usually baked on a dome-shaped iron over a fire or gas — Cheney couldn’t use either in the Yalla space, so it’s a round crepe iron, only settled on after a Palestinian friend approved. (Cheney messaged a photo: “Do you think this is going to be disrespectful?” Answer: “It’s perfect if it makes good bread.”) One concession she’s made is adding more meat options, at the request of all kinds of customers. Then, at the request of some, she went halal.
All Yalla’s saj wraps get veggies, and the amounts can vary depending on who’s making them. Lebanese beef confit, subtly spiced with the likes of cumin, cinnamon and allspice, was one day dominated by large pieces of somewhat mealy tomato; another time, stuffed into its saj with pretty much a full salad, it achieved gorgeous, messy freshness. Lamb gets flavored with pomegranate molasses, also not too aggressively; appreciate the nuance, then apply Yalla’s neon-red fermented hot sauce, just this side of alarmingly spicy but with a citrusy tang that’s got plenty of nuance itself. It’s worth the extra $2, as is a side of labneh. Take them home and put them on everything (or find yourself eating them plain together, dipping a spoon back and forth).
Important: Do not ignore the mezzes, a changing roster of dips and appetizers on Yalla’s blackboard menu. Traditional turnip pickles, tinged beyond blushing by beets, will clear your head, sometimes accompanied by also-assertive green olives from local importer Villa Jerada. Yalla’s hummus tastes extra nutty and lemony-bright, and comes with a drizzle of olive oil and a few whole chickpeas nesting on top. Beautiful brick-red muhummara, roughly blended, garlicky and olive-oil-rich, features the flavors of roasted red peppers, walnuts and pomegranate molasses — plummy but with a mouth-awakening tartness, delicious by itself or smeared on saj (or, later, crackers).
One time recently at Yalla, the saj seemed tougher than usual — perhaps one of the days when it wasn’t made fresh before service, which are infrequent, Cheney says. Another time, Cheney talked up a special of kefta saj, which proved to be less of a wrap and more of a flattened parcel, greasy on the outside and heavy with beef, no vegetables: great for a meat-lover’s late-night ballast, but not what Yalla does best. In that category, if a falafel wrap is on offer, get it. You’ll never be so happy to need so many napkins, and it’s perfect with a can of cold Rainier at neighboring dive bar Montana, where Yalla-goers are welcomed.
Cheney says Yalla — which means “let’s go” in Arabic — has gotten a funny mix of reactions. She’s had lots of customers from the Middle East: “They’re surprised because they’ve never seen anyone doing this bread in Washington before.” And, she says, “There’s definitely some people who come by and are like, ‘This isn’t tacos — I’m out of here.’” When saj is being made in the all-windowed space, “Sometimes people are really, really confused — like ‘What’s going on?’” They’ll do a double take and come back to try it, and thus have many become Yalla regulars.
Yalla: 1510 E. Olive Way, Seattle; no phone; yallaseattle.com; 4 p.m.-1 a.m. every day (lunch coming soon)
Recommended for super-tasty wraps on housemade saj, including za’atar and more; delicious mezzes, a changing roster of dips and appetizers; the housemade fermented hot sauce and labneh; the special-only falafel (get it!)
No reservations, to-go only
Prices: $ (mezzes $6/each, saj wraps $8.50-$11)
Access: no stairs or obstacles, window service only