“We made it spicy, and then we got the feedback: too spicy,” Billy Alabsi says of his wife’s lamb. “What it does is irritate the surface of the tongue and make the tongue more sensitive and active than usual, but people are just scared of it.”
Sensible, no? So they dialed it back a little. Alabsi and his wife, Noora, are the proprietors of Falafelland, on the southwest corner of Sixth and Minna streets. He is a gregarious guy, whose speech patterns can alternate between an excitable yelp and a bare whisper. He is open about his financial struggles — not out of self-pity, but because it’s the truth — yet seems congenitally inclined to giving away food and drink for free. He used to drive a limo, he says, until a serious accident on Lucas Valley Road in Marin last summer spooked him into rethinking what might happen to his family if he were no longer there to provide for them.
“It was seven seconds of my life, but it was a lifetime flash,” he says. “Two weeks after that, I couldn’t talk — because I love my kids and I love my wife.”
A San Francisco resident for decades, Alabsi used to work at a market at the very top of 18th Street in the Castro, and worked at a nonprofit in the Tenderloin, where the city’s Yemeni community is centered. But at 53, he was worried he couldn’t get hired as a cashier or a dishwasher, so he and Noora opened Falafelland. It’s a 200-square-foot space with tiles Alabsi installed himself, outfitting the place with a donated soda fridge, a donated rice cooker, and the microwave from the family’s home. Falafelland doesn’t have printed menus, so for now Alabsi asks new customers to take a picture of the handwritten text on the screen using their phones. Without the funds for an awning, he frets about the afternoon sun, but he splurges on a bouquet of roses each week.
Seeing him fill a pita with falafel and everything that goes with it is like watching the entire geological history of the Earth in miniature. He layers the onions with hot sauce and feta — pausing to correct an observer’s lazy pronunciation of the cheese’s name — arranging everything in a precise order. He inserts a French fry, squirts in some sugarcane vinegar, then adds another.
“I usually put a blueberry in mine,” he says. “Noora said, ‘What are you thinking?’ But they’re not sweet. They’re kind of muddy, fruity. So you mix it with the falafel sandwich, just one or two because you might get that bite. That lucky bite.”
The Alabsis chose Sixth Street in part because it’s close to their home and to their children’s school. Both their daughter and son, ages six and five, have significant health issues, so the parents take turns dropping them off and picking them up. Alabsi doesn’t like to leave Noora by herself for too long, either. A kind, soft-spoken woman who wears a hijab, she has moderate proficiency in English and once chased away a potential tip-jar raider with the tongs she uses to serve baklava and halvah.
“I said, ‘What, are you going to scratch their back? This is like toothpicks!’ ” Alabsi says, hastily adding that his wife is the cook and the boss, and he works for her and not the other way around. “She’s very straightforward. She don’t like bullshit. She’s tiny, but she’s bold and decisive.”
There have been a few minor turf skirmishes between the newcomers and some suspicious longtime residents, but mostly Alabsi wants to be a good neighbor. He admits to placing cloves of garlic outside to deter dogs with full bladders — maybe people, too — but also because garlic has “good energy.”
A pescatarian who’s recently gone back to veganism for health reasons, he taste-tests everything but the lamb, which is a family recipe from Noora’s grandmother. Tea and coffee are his province, though. He serves coffee in the Yemeni way, with a pinch of grounds added to a freshly brewed cup and left to settle at the bottom. The tea is really a variation on green coffee, with lots of ginger and cardamom, and there’s no way you’re getting out the door without trying some. The son of a Jewish mother and a Muslim father, Alabsi has a good relationship with the owners of Frena, the kosher cafe directly across the street — he notes with pride that Yemen was a Jewish kingdom before Islam arrived in the seventh century — and he speaks highly of his extended family, which includes several doctors and professionals. Many of them live in the Bay Area, while others have to contend with what Alabsi simply calls “the crisis in Yemen.”
A 2011 revolution against President Ali Abdullah Saleh, part of the Arab Spring, led to widespread chaos and a punishing Saudi air campaign — with U.S. support — that has left the poorest country in the Middle East to grapple with widespread malnutrition and the worst cholera epidemic in history. Saudi oppression upsets him, but Alabsi would prefer to remember his native Ba’dan District as a place where you can look up at night and see dots of light from all the mountain villages that have maintained their traditional way of life.
Falafelland’s tiny kitchen makes it effectively impossible to offer the full breadth of the cuisine of Ba’dan, though. Alabsi would love to serve all seven of the region’s breads, but he and Noora settle for a bountiful portion of lamb kabsa and a labor-intensive preparation of rice that involves boiling cilantro, parsley, and serrano peppers, then adding another “20 to 26 spices.”
A friendly couple, Rose and a guy who’s also named Billy, pop in on their way to the Social Security office. Alabsi talks with them about mixing avocados into falafel for a smoother texture and a milkier taste; they explain the Ellis Act to him. Most of Falafelland’s customers are Caucasian or Asian, Alabsi says, but he’s eager to proselytize to anyone who comes in — which they do, from as far as Palo Alto.
“Even the mailman!” he says. “He ate one piece of lamb, and the next day he says he wants double. And after that, he says ‘I’m going to go find me a wife from Yemen!’ ”
Sixth Street can be tough, and Alabsi wishes the city paid more attention to the area, but he’s determined to feed his neighbors. He hopes to have long lines someday soon, but worries about what the small shop’s capacity might be. And he’s been eyeing a property across the street, a larger space that has its own patio. Does that mean the Alabsis want to open a full-service restaurant one day?
“I’m going to show you what magic is,” he says.
Falafelland, 133 Sixth St., 415-424-1552, no website.