Step into Delah Coffee House and cardamom and cinnamon envelope like a bear hug, their scents grabbing hold and hanging on tight. People fill the wide room, some settling in for hours like it’s finals week at the college library. This is not an exceptional scene at the newest coffee shop to set down roots in the SoMa neighborhood of San Francisco. Omar Jahamee, Delah’s 18-year-old general manager, says this is how it’s been every day since opening. “We’re doing something for the family, something for the culture,” Jahamee says.
The business takes its name from a delah, a classic Yemeni coffee pot, and that small piece of knowledge is just the beginning of the coffee culture education many will get at this well-lit shop. The walls feature maps and explanations of how coffee came from Yemen, by way of Ethiopia, before it spread throughout the world; it was from the Port of Mokha that Gujarati and Dutch exporters spread the buzzy seed. The country’s rich coffee history is not widely known, though Mokhtar Alkhanshali, the Tenderloin’s own coffee savant, works to create avenues for Yemeni coffee exporting, including by organizing the first Yemeni national coffee auction earlier this year.
But cafes like Delah Coffee House are part of a larger push to bring Middle Eastern coffee culture to the United States. In Brooklyn, there’s Yafa Cafe, and in Dearborn, Michigan, Qahwah House. Jahamee says he and his uncle dele, Delah founder and owner Majed Mohamed, wanted to bring their culture into the cafe scene in the Bay Area. They say this is the first Yemeni cafe of its kind in the region, first opening in June and celebrating a grand opening on July 15. It’s been in the works since 2017 or so, Jahamee says, though he was still living in New York while his uncle was here laying the groundwork. Jahamee moved to Northern California in May 2022 to get the business off the ground. “We thought about it for the longest [time],” Jahamee says. “We wanted to do something new.”
It’s important to remember that North Africa, specifically Ethiopia, is the birthplace of the magic bean, and Yemen is the first place coffee seeds were ever cultivated for commercial sales. It’s no surprise, then, that country has a strong coffee culture; it’s common to drink dark roasted, heavily spiced coffee all through the day and evening, and rural farmers in the Haraz Mountains even drink beverages made from the dried husk of the coffee cherry, known as cascara to some and as qishr to Yemeni farmers. Though many are familiar with Eurocentric coffee culture — think, espresso-based drinks — the long-held brewing practices of South West Asia and North African (SWANA) diaspora are catching on thanks to globalization.
The Delah menu is, indeed, unique in the Bay Area’s cafe scene. The cinnamon and cardamom-scented Yemeni latte, available hot or iced, acts as the shop’s signature drink. The owners are tight-lipped about the exact recipe, but in short, it’s everything the pumpkin spice latte wants to be with none of the cloying sweetness. “It’s the first in the Bay Area, but in New York and Michigan they have drinks like this,” Jahamee says. “It’s our twist, though. The spice hits different.” A number of the coffee options arrive served in pots with candles lit underneath to keep them hot. The light roast jubani kettle, for example, is infused with cinnamon and cardamom, making for a fragrant (and quite caffeinating) pot to split with a friend. When it comes to food there are both sweet and savory pastries, sometimes both — the Bee Bite, for example, is a cream cheese-stuffed bread, served hot, with honey on top.
The team hopes Bay Area coffee drinkers get on board with their traditional approach to coffee. In the next few years they’d like to have shops throughout California, then the country. “We’ll be everywhere, hopefully,” Jahamee says. He feels Delah Coffee House, and shops like it, are important to the cafe culture of the United States (and Bay Area specifically) since coffee shops tend to close too early, in his opinion. Back in Yemen, and with family here in the Bay, he’s familiar with drinking coffee all through the afternoon and evening and at late-night get-togethers. “We should push it to midnight,” Jahamee says of coffee shop’s hours, pointing to the bedouin communities in Yemen who regularly keep it going all night long. He’s confidant the business will keep thriving. During these first few weeks, it’s not just members of the Middle Eastern diaspora who have been hanging out for hours. “I’ve been noticing a lot of different people in the shop,” Jahamee says. “We welcome everybody. This should feel like your home. This is your house.”
Delah Coffee House (370 4th Street) is open 6 am to 10 pm Monday through Friday and 7 am to 10 pm Saturday and Sunday.