It’s Sunday afternoon, and natural light pours through the windows at Tysons Corner Center, softening the hard edges and frazzled shoppers on the third floor of the mall. A pint-size locomotive makes one loop after another around the space, pulling several multicolored passenger cars through a commercial vista that has fallen on hard times, even if the scars are not visible to the tiny riders as they motor by the AMC Theatres, the T.G.I. Fridays and the half-moon of vendors that line the food court.

I’m occupying an uncomfortable two-top in the food court, distracted by all the people, their masks and careful distancing reminders that our lives have been on hold for a long time now: the strangers never met, the conversations never started, the phone numbers never exchanged. So much has changed in the past 18 months, and sometimes it can be hard to see or even process, despite the enormity of it all.

One such change is sitting right in front of me. It’s a lamb shank from Marhaba, a new counter at the Tysons food court. The large, bone-in lamb lounges atop a mound of turmeric-tinted rice, which has been spooned into a clamshell container. The meat, fragrant of cloves and green cardamom, falls from the bone with only the slightest application of your fork — your plastic fork. This disconnect between luxurious preparation and carryout packaging is almost impossible to reconcile, I find. This is white-tablecloth Yemeni cooking disguised as mall food, and my mind is racing faster than that choo-choo doing laps next to me.

I would come to find out that Marhaba is one of the precious few gifts that we can trace to the pandemic. It’s a gift, of course, that involves loss. A lot of loss. Reem Choudhury is the specialty leasing manager for Macerich, the owner of Tysons Corner Center. She’s the one responsible for securing temporary tenants when spaces are available. We already knew the pandemic was a killer, but it’s also a taskmaster, as Choudhury can attest. She has had to sign upwards of 40 temporary tenants into the mall, including Marhaba, trying to fill the spaces abandoned by coronavirus casualties.

The temporary deals are opportunities for upstart businesses to get a foothold in the popular mall. But they carry risks: The leases are short, usually around 12 months, and Tysons has 30-day termination rights, Choudhury tells me. If a permanent tenant is found, the temporary one must pack its bags or, more likely, be relocated to another part of the mall.

“People are taking the risks, because they’re getting an opportunity when any other time the space would never be available or would be too expensive,” Choudhury says. “Most people, they can’t even swallow when they hear the price of the rent. It’s a lot.”

Ahmed Mahmood, the owner of Marhaba, decided to gamble. It was a well-calculated gamble. A native of Yemen, Mahmood is no stranger to the D.C. area. He worked in project management for the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education before moving north to New York and eventually landing in Boston in 2014. Two years later, he opened a Mediterranean fast-casual, the Fava Bean, in the CambridgeSide Galleria in Cambridge, Mass. He was following in the footsteps of his father and brothers, who had opened a traditional Yemeni restaurant in Malaysia.

Like Choudhury with Tysons Corner Center, Mahmood had inside information on the demographics of the mall: He knew it caters to expats from the Arab world. Marhaba, in fact, isn’t the only business here to serve as a magnet to those from Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Egypt and other lands. You’ll also find Falafel Inc., the Halal Guys and Shotted, the latter a specialty coffee shop that specializes in Arabic drinks, pistachio lattes and honey cakes. Mall food has long since shed its reputation as a wasteland of Sbarro slices, Karmelkorn and Orange Juliuses.

The lamb and chicken mandi (spelled “mandy” on Marhaba’s electronic menu) are the main attractions. Mahmood grew up on lamb mandi in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital. He knows the workarounds required to prepare the traditional dish for the food-court contingent. For starters, you have to cook the marinated meat in an oven, not in a hole in the earth filled with glowing coals. Second, the lamb shanks and chicken must be available for immediate consumption, ready to serve straight from a steam table. This demands gravy, which Mahmood and Sulaiman Saeed, the chef on-site at Marhaba, have dutifully developed for both dishes. Make sure to ask the counter server to add a spoonful or two over your rice.

The chicken mandi features a different flavor profile than its lamb cousin: You’ll notice a slight reddish tint to the bird, courtesy of the paprika and tomato paste added to the marinade, vs. the slight yellowish tint to the lamb, courtesy of turmeric. Honestly, I couldn’t tell you which one I like more, though I will say that the lamb shank, with its protruding bone, makes for one helluva Instagram post. For those who care about such things.

But Marhaba is not strictly a Yemeni restaurant (though it is halal, as the menu notes in Arabic). The owner has cobbled together a tight collection of dishes that cater to a wide range of palates. He used to serve an Indian biryani, for instance, but it didn’t go over well with the food-court crowd, so it’s now history.

But you’ll still find a decent whole fried tilapia, its flavors borrowed from Peru, and a housemade chicken shawarma, which you can order as a wrap, the bird’s sweeter clove spice offset with sharp shocks of pickled cucumber. You can even opt for crispy orbs of falafel or petite slices of gyro meat, both of which are quality third-party products that Marhaba surrounds with some superb sides. Don’t miss the shop’s versions of khoresh bamieh, a Persian okra stew, or Lebanese batata harra, a rough-cut potato dish electrified with garlic and chile flakes.

Marhaba recently expanded its weekend menu to include koshary, the Egyptian national dish that laughs in the face of the low-carb clique. It combines pasta, chickpeas, lentils, rice and fried onions, a mash-up tied together with a mild tomato sauce. Make sure to order it with a handful of tiny takeout containers of garlic and hot sauce. The condiments add acid, heat and attitude to a plate whose personality depends on it.

The Arabic word “marhaba” means welcome in English, which I hope is prophetic. I’d love to see Tysons Corner Center welcome this newcomer with a long-term lease.


1961 Chain Bridge Rd., Tysons, Va., inside Tysons Corner Center, 571-378-0225.

Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday; noon to 7:30 p.m. Sunday.

Prices: $1.79 to $16.99 for all items on the menu.