When Saber Bouteraa, 25, arrived in the United States at age 16, everything seemed new and exciting. His family settled in Astoria, Queens, and one of the first things Bouteraa did was look for a job. If you’ve been to Astoria you know the neighborhood isn’t lacking in food options, and it seemed natural that he ended up working in that industry. Bouteraa did everything from bussing tables to taking orders in pizzerias, delis and restaurants. And eventually, he decided he wanted to have a place of his own. Despite being thousands of miles from his hometown of Algiers in Algeria, Bouteraa did his best to honor his culture.
“I’ve always been in love with my culture, the North African culture and I wanted to introduce it to others here in New York City,” he says. “Sometimes, when people ask me where I am from, I say I am from Algeria, but they don’t know where it is. People ask,‘Is it in the Middle East? Is it in Africa?’”
There were also just a few places where Bouteraa could taste the familiar flavors from his homeland. And two of his favorites, Tajine and the Nomad, closed during the pandemic.
This gave him an idea.
“After Tajine closed, I was like, ‘Whoa, all the North African restaurants are closing.’ We did not have a lot in New York City. While many restaurants served Moroccan food, they were not authentic,” says Bouteraa. “It was as if you were looking for Mexican food, but you only found Chipotle or Taco Bell. It’s not the same. It’s not authentic. I wanted to create something really authentic.”
In a twist of fate, the owner of Tassili Restaurant in Astoria reached out to Bouteraa to let him know he was going out of business. Bouteraa knew that if he wanted to pursue his dream, he had to act fast.
“I did everything I could. At the time, I had bought cryptocurrency and sold all of it. I brought money [I had saved] from my country. I borrowed money from family and friends and gave him a deposit. I told him that little by little I would finish paying off and buy everything from him,” he says. “He told me, ‘You’re so crazy, you’re so young, this is too big for you,’ but I told him I could handle it. [Soon enough] I had all the money and signed the contract.”
Bouteraa wanted his North African customers to feel like they were back at their mother’s house enjoying a traditional, authentic homemade meal. Bouteraa reconstructed the entire restaurant for six months. He named it Dar Yemma, which means “mom’s house.”
Opening a restaurant when so many others were closing down was daunting, but Bouteraa stayed true to his dream.
“Many people with experience told me that the restaurant industry was dying or in a crisis. I call them negative people and I am not going to lie, I was a little bit scared that they would be right. But I believed in [Dar Yemma],” Bouteraa says.
Bouteraa initially imagined his restaurant would serve North African customers, and slowly people from other backgrounds would trickle in. However, within three months, Dar Yemma made the rounds on the news and social media. It even received a visit from the New York Times food critic. People came from all over the city to try its acclaimed dishes. Favorites include harira, an authentic Moroccan soup combining tomato, lentils, chickpeas, herbs, and meat, served with chebakia, fresh dates & lemon wedges, heaping kebab plates and the Casablanca couscous with caramelized onions, chickpeas and currants.
It was a great first year, and business exploded when the World Cup came around. Morocco had made it to the final rounds and people searched for authentic North African food. Luckily, Dar Yemma was there to satisfy the cravings.
“During the first game, we had around 25, 30 people. Then they posted on social media. By the second game, we had 50 people; by the third game, we couldn’t handle it. For the fourth game, I knew we had to make some space. In 48 hours, we opened up our backyard, did some construction, added lights, heaters and more TVs – more tables and chairs,” he says. “We were able to serve around 120 to 130 people and there were still people outside begging to come in.”
Now Dar Yemma is packed almost every night, mainly because of Ramadan. The restaurant has been hosting customers as they come and enjoy their Iftar meals.
Fatine is one of these customers who wanted to find a traditional place to break her fast.
“It’s super authentic and I really feel like I am at home, so I feel great. The mint tea tastes exactly like the one back home. The Iftar items I was served are exactly what I would be eating if I was in Morocco, like the soups, boiled eggs and the sweets. Also, seeing everyone together for Iftar, it feels like home.”
Dar Yemma offers a traditional Ramadan menu. Customers are given boiled eggs, dates, milk or Moroccan soup to break the fast. For non-Muslims or people who want to try the regular menu, there are traditional North African dishes like chicken bastila, a Moroccan pie stuffed with chicken strips and crushed almonds garnished with powdered sugar and cinnamon; chicken tagine, where the meat is slow-cooked with Moroccan spices, olives and preserved lemon; or lamb borek, a flakey, savory pastry filled with minced lamb and onion.
Bouteraa is proud of Dar Yemma’s success so far and is hoping more New Yorkers continue to try North Africa’s delicious food. The restaurant will have a Ramadan menu for the rest of the holy month. Customers can come celebrate the culmination of Ramadan on Eid, which falls on the end of April (day to be confirmed).
“We will have a special menu. A lot of sweets, cake and traditional cookies,” says Bouterra. “We may even have a small party for [families to celebrate] with their kids.”
Dar Yemma is often full — so if you want to experience its food, be sure to snag a table in advance.
Hours of operation: Monday – Friday: 11 a.m. – 11 p.m. / Saturday – Sunday: 11 a.m. – 12 a.m.
Business address: 25-21 Steinway St., Queens
Phone number: (718) 709-9760
Reservations: Via Resy