Seeking out street food in Abu Dhabi
“When they opened the gates in Al Ain, people were running in”, this nugget of information from one of the Abu Dhabi street feast traders mobilized us to action. Determined to sample something from every food truck that had been shipped from the UK, Sam, Shiyam and I positioned ourselves and three different trucks ready and waiting to be their first customers. Chopped onions were being unwrapped, tubs of browned halloumi carried past, grills heating up. With the sun going down over the Abu Dhabi Corniche the temperature was perfect for punters but pretty steamy if you were in a small van next to a shimmering hot plate. As Brits out during the depths of a UK winter, the lobsters weren’t just on the grill, many had overdone the sun and were glowing pinkishly. They were all stoked for another busy night.
Paul from Donastia Social Club answered my questions and while he turned the chops on the grill so the fat crisped up perfectly and the sweet scent of cooking lamb filled the air. I returned triumphantly to our little table with my lamb cutlets with a pea puree and confit broad beans and we pooled our spoils. The lamb would have graced a restaurant menu perfectly – nothing junk food about that – and the local fresh ingredients shone through. The stall holder from Big Apple Hot Dogs had brought his 98% meat, natural casing sausages from the UK and they were fat, peppery and laden with sauces. A lot more ‘mmmm-ing’ from our table – actually that might have just been me. I’d been sceptical that someone could make cheese on toast exciting. Raclette cheese mixed with cheddar and some onion in a a perfectly toasted sour dough sandwich tasted as good as it sounds. The Cheese Truck were now vying for second place my streetfood rankings. Slightly greasy churros were dunked into cocoa laden dipping sauce from Churros Bros.
Diving off for the next round, I headed for The Roadery in their blue van called ‘Pam’. The guys were already rusting up some bracos, a flat bread freshly made from flour and baking powder and freshly cooked into a British taco (their own invention). The tongue was not ready so I plumped for Wagyu beef cheek. The girls taking the money had volunteered to help and had driven down from Dubai after work. Dan Shearman who delicately assembled my braco brings nose to tail eating and sustainable food to the street. Served in a slender bamboo tray, this was another plateful which would have easily made it onto a good restaurant menu. The Roadery – please move to Dubai permanently.
Back at the picnic table we finished off a very rustic looking pizza made in the back of a tiny Ape van. Brothers James and Thom Elliot documented their journey as they drove it back from Italy – hence Pizza Pilgrims – and now recreate Neapolitan-style pizzas in London. The sauce tasted as though it had been made from fresh tomatoes – another big tick. The Indians Next Door were so friendly and genuine, just like their food. This was the best value all night with a freshly made roti filled with slow cooked chicken curry. I’d braved a rapidly expanding queue for ATE street food among groups of Emirati ladies – it was great to be among locals in Abu Dhabi (more rare in Dubai). Brioche sliders were being filled with slow-cooked lamb, chicken or beef – I plumped for the latter two which were good but not great compared to the previous meaty offerings… however this is all relative as you’ll see later.
We chatted to local traders as well, like Tahir from the fabulous Moti Roti, Jones the Grocer team (who had sold cheese to the Cheese Truck!), and the Biryani Pot guy (from the Purple Honey group) but our priority was to sample what the visitors had brought. Gasping for a drink the final truck was really welcome – Yogusensi and one of each was ordered. We tried ‘Pink lemon…aid’ (lemon, apple, black grape), ‘Cosmic Energy’ (beetroot, ginger, apple) and ‘Hail King carrot’ (carrot, orange, ginger, apple). There were all super fresh and beautifully balanced. I didn’t think I’d every rave about juice but these were top notch.
Leaving the throng, with live African drumming music in the background and the chefs demo area in full swing, we made our way back to Dubai. Shiyam couldn’t resist taking us to one of his favourite dosa places on the way though. Picking our way to a small canteen style restaurant across from an old-style Indian cinema, vada and dosas filled with chillies and peppercorns were passed through the white tiled hatch on metal plates. Vegan and gluten-free, this was delicious food to please a crowd and we just about managed to make a fair-sized dent in the crispy, golden discs.
The food had been stellar, so what made it different from the ‘street food’ movement which seems to be creeping into the Emirates? Firstly, the people who man the vans cooked and sourced the food. There had been a mix up with suppliers when the arrived so they hit the local markets and all we talked to were raving about the amazing choice and produce from the fish and veg souks. They all loved Lulu’s too. While some are growing businesses (like Pizza Pilgrims) most are one or two person operations who took a huge risk in removing their vans from the streets of London for the two months it takes to ship them here and back. They are only as good as the last meal they serve in a very competitive street food environment so it has to be great (and not just about image). The food is made for the street and unlike most of the new UAE trucks are not restaurant pop ups.
Where to get real street food in Dubai?
I’m a fan of Moti Roti which started as a small stall at the Ripe market when it was in the Courtyard. Although Tahir doesn’t cook everything he’s always at every outdoor event they attend. Like the London traders he started on the street. For me, the current restaurants in a van fall into two categories a) restaurant pop ups and b) fast food vans (some on a par with 1970’s burger vans in quality and some very expensive). I tried a wide range of the food at the Al Quoz Street Nights event last night and although some of my favourite restaurants were there, most did not deliver in taste or portion size (too huge and difficult to eat). They are better off cooking in their own kitchens. The ‘ATE’ sliders which we’d thought just OK the night before, knocked spots off anything I tried there.
The exception is Ghaf Kitchen who are actually an anomaly as high-end outside caterers and always serve up excellent food (the owner was there taking orders at Street Nights). Baker and Spice also get it right at the Farmers’ Market as they don’t recreate anything from their menu but make simple, fresh food which is excellent on the grill. Otherwise you’ll have to eat ‘street food’ inside in hole in the wall restaurants throughout Deira and Bur Dubai (similar to the dosa place). Visit I Live in a Frying Pan for a whole host of little hole in the wall recommendations and this great post about four street food gems in Satwa by Chef and Steward.
So if you are in the Emirates today and seeking street food, head to the Street Feast on Abu Dhabi Corniche. For a fantastic vibe, some brilliant street art, music and to eat outside, go to Street Nights in Al Quoz.
It’ll be interesting to see where the street food movement goes next both here and in other big cities. What’s the best street food you’ve ever eaten?