Where to Get Authentic Middle Eastern Food
Arlington's Bluemont neighborhood is home to two gems: Layalina and House of Mandi
In the mood for authentic Middle Eastern? These two gems on Wilson Boulevard in Arlington’s Bluemont neighborhood are worth a visit—for the company and the food.
Owners Souheil (Sam) and Rima Kodsi have enjoyed a loyal following for the past 20 years, but they saw a surge of customers in February after President Trump called for a travel ban on residents from seven countries, including Rima’s native Syria.
“It started with a stranger who came in and said, ‘We love you and we want you to stay in business,’ ” Sam recalls. “Then a family at a table nearby overheard and the dad showed me his phone. The neighborhood association had put something up online saying, ‘Go to Layalina and support them.’ ”
Sam was born in Lebanon, though his father’s job as a telephone engineer for the Syrian government took his family all over the Middle East. After traveling to the U.S. in 1969 and attending flight school in Manassas, Sam returned to his family, then in Damascus. That’s where he met Rima in 1972. (Actually re-met; their families had been neighbors when they were in sixth grade.) They married the following year and came back stateside. Sam worked as a pilot for Colgan Airways before switching to hotel management and serving as head of banquets for the Vista International Hotel in D.C. from 1982 to 1996. In 1997, he and Rima opened Layalina (named for their youngest daughter, Layal), crafting their menu around Rima’s grandmother’s recipes. www.layalinarestaurant.com
On the Menu
Hummus (a family recipe, of course)
M’hammarah: a red pepper and walnut dip
Lamb shank simmered with tomatoes and mushrooms in pomegranate-lemon sauce
Baby okra simmered with olive oil, garlic and tomatoes
House of Mandi
When you meet Abdulbari Alshehari and his wife, Arwa Aljarmozi, you can’t help but be captivated by their warmth and hospitality. The couple emigrated to the U.S. in 1995 after fleeing civil war in their native Yemen. What started as a home-based business is now a charming 60-seat restaurant with a takeout counter next door.
“Abdul is a Bedouin, so he’s very generous and welcoming of visitors,” Arwa explains. “If someone was here from out of town or passing by, or if someone had a baby, he’d invite them over. People loved the food, and little by little they asked us to cater parties.” The business grew by word of mouth and the couple opened their restaurant in March of 2015. Now U.S. citizens, they have five children.
What are the defining features of Yemeni cuisine? “We were occupied by the Ottoman Empire for 400 years, so their influence is in our food. Also Pakistani and Indian,” says Abdul, a former academic adviser at the United Arab Emirates Embassy in D.C. Spices such as coriander, cumin, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, black peppercorn and turmeric are predominant flavors in dishes served with freshly made chapatti, a puffy tandoori bread.
“We are 100 percent halal and buy free-range whole lambs from an Amish farmer in Hagerstown,” Arwa adds. “We make the food from scratch and in small batches so that it’s always fresh.” www.houseofmandi.com
On the Menu
Mandi: a rice dish cooked tandoori-style with lamb or chicken
Mougalgal: lamb leg sautéed with bell peppers, tomatoes, spices and onions
Fasha: beef stew with cilantro, onions and tomatoes
Saltah: stewed vegetables (potatoes, tomatoes, okra), topped with whipped fenugreek, lemon, basil and cilantro
Whole spiced pompano, a perfectly grilled and deboned fish