Nestled in the charming hamlet of Brattleboro, Vermont, Yalla Vermont is a terrific vegetarian restaurant dubbed by one critic as “the best Israeli restaurant you’ll never eat in,” due to it being tucked away in a small mountain town. Yalla Vermont is the delicious invention of Zohar Arama, who hails from Ashkelon, Israel, where he was raised by a Yemeni mother and a Greek father, both of whom emphasized the importance of good food. Such lineage led Arama to cultivate an early interest in the culinary arts, though he did not immediately jump into the restaurant business.
After serving in the Israeli army and earning a degree in architectural engineering from Tel Aviv University, Arama opened a hiking equipment store back in his hometown. He then set off in 2001 to conquer the Appalachian Trail, where en route he met Eileen, the woman who would later become his wife. The couple lived together in Israel for nearly a decade before returning to the United States, settling in Vermont, close to the trail that brought them together.
Arama began selling his homemade hummus at local markets, where, with a mobile tabun (a clay oven common in the Middle East) in tow, he also baked fresh pita, the only of its kind on hand for miles. The stand’s nearly overnight success quickly enabled Arama to open a brick-and-mortar location in downtown Brattleboro. Arama named his culinary child, “Yalla,” which though technically Arabic for “Come on!,” is actually one of the most popular slang expressions in Israel. He wanted his restaurant to embody the spirit of inclusion and community among diverse people.
At Yalla, Arama continues to churn out piping hot, pillowy loaves of his famous pita, now baked on a much fancier, decidedly non-mobile oven. “I’ve upgraded,” laughs Arama. Yalla also features Arama’s special hummus, which he makes in non-traditional fashion via the omission of garlic. Arama claims garlic often ultimately overwhelms hummus, masking its true taste, so he relies on tahini and navy beans to give his hummus its signature flavor. Hummus is among the cornucopia of items included with Yalla’s impressive all-you-can-eat salad bar, whose sumptuous selection (fried eggplant, tomato and cucumber salad, spicy, Yemenite zhug and Israeli pickles) is enough to make a meal in and of themselves. As for entrees, Yalla regularly serves pita sandwiches stuffed with falafel, shakshuka and phool, a savory breakfast stew made from fava beans. Stuffed cabbage and bourekas are available on a rotating basis.
Finally, Arama explicitly encourages his patrons to add a three-hour boiled egg to any dish “for creamy texture and smoky flavor.” Rounding out Yalla’s stellar starch offerings are two bi-weekly bread specials: challah and chocolate babka, both of which are only available on Friday (and sell out very quickly).
Yalla’s interior comprises a cozy casual dining space and a counter flanked by hand-written signs advertising menu items and specials. At the register’s helm is most often the owner himself, who greets all customers like old friends. Also helping out these days is Arbel, Arama’s sixteen-year-old daughter. “I highly recommend everyone, no matter what their business, work with their child. It’s a wonderful experience,” he says.
When asked if he ever aspires to open a second location, Arama demurs: “It’s tempting, but so often if you expand you have to give up on quality, and I am not willing to make that sacrifice.”
Arama is ultimately very proud of the fact that many of his regulars are otherwise carnivores who make an exception for his veggie Mediterranean cuisine. These loyal patrons are part of an ever–growing community of Yalla fans, many of whom are still initially lured in by Arama’s distinctive hummus and pita, which is sold at multiple farmers’ markets throughout the area.