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Seeking out street food in Abu Dhabi

February 21, 2015

“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.

If you are in London look for Kerb, Street Feast and the Real Food Festival – see more on my post about eating out in London.

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?

23 Comments
  1. February 21, 2015 1:37 pm

    Oh, wow, your evening sounds simply fantastic. Best street food ever eaten? I have to say, it was ‘fry bread’ eaten on a small market in a Navajo Reservation – so simple, so utterly delicious.
    Nicole

  2. February 21, 2015 1:41 pm

    It looks like a great place to eat. Fabulous food.

    Cheers,

    Rosa

  3. February 21, 2015 2:11 pm

    Great pictures!! Do the trucks come every night, or was this a special event? Looks like fun!!

  4. talkavino permalink
    February 21, 2015 4:53 pm

    Very interesting. Food sounds amazing! Considering that all the signs are in English, is this tourist-oriented event/time of year, or is it a normal part of life there?

  5. February 21, 2015 5:34 pm

    What a delicious evening out indeed. Every year the street food scene here matures a little, so I hope the authorities will soon channel some of this investment into budding chefs here.

  6. February 21, 2015 7:04 pm

    Did we really have the same idea to post about street food in two different Emirates on the same day? Wow, we are in sync lady! I wish I had come along with you to Abu Dhabi. Let’s book each other’s calendars for next year. I will have my people talk to your people to make it happen.

  7. February 21, 2015 9:15 pm

    What a fantastic evening out… I wish I could join you all… like Kari, probably next time. I am fascinated with Food Trucks, not the gourmet pop up varieties but real real real food trucks… and I have gone all the way to SOMA in San Farnsisco and also Street Food Festival.

  8. February 22, 2015 9:51 am

    It seems AD has the right attitude to food trucks, and hats off to those who were brave enough trek to waters unknown to share their passion. Moti Roti and Ghaf are in a league of their own 🙂

  9. February 22, 2015 11:27 am

    Thanks for this excellent post. Had I not been down with a severe bout of the flu, I’d have been down in Abu Dhabi too!

    Having spent my college and early work years in American cities (Philadelphia and NYC) where street food IS the culture, not a newfound fad, I really do find some of the street food initiatives locally to feel somewhat contrived. With the few exceptions like Ghaf or Moti Roti, it’s painful to see people lining up in queues for a high priced burger or a restaurant pop-up as you say, because street food is more about the personal flavour of the person behind the truck and the local context (e.g. local produce, grassroots innovation) than about an extension to a restaurant or things being in shipped in from abroad.

    Even though they pulled in all the talent from abroad, it seems like Abu Dhabi has taken the right step in showing people how food trucks are meant to be run. I hope this inspires the government and local entrepreneurs to support more homegrown food truck innovation in the months and years ahead – one that feeds every day, rather than one-off at a festival. We shouldn’t have to ship in food trucks, our resident talent is so incredibly diverse that street flavours really do have the potential to rock the world – if only the regulations and the consumer will jointly give them a chance..

  10. February 22, 2015 11:39 am

    OMG!!! Absolute heaven!!!! and you even have my Mums building in one of your photos, you were literally on her doorstep! Cool 🙂
    And in two weekends time my husband will be running along that exact same stretch of corniche taking part in the AD triathlon 🙂

  11. February 22, 2015 1:23 pm

    A mouthwatering post indeed! I would love to visit Abu Dhabi and try all these out for myself one day.

  12. February 22, 2015 11:23 pm

    Wow, such a great guide! And so yummy looking!
    http://www.liquidgrain.co.uk

  13. February 23, 2015 1:34 am

    So strange seeing these modern pop ups in Abu Dhabi. When my father lived out there so many moons ago now there were a few “Ramlals” with ramsjphackle stalls serving the best Dhal and rice and hot hot Chapattis. This is where we queued with him after he had finished work.

  14. February 23, 2015 9:11 am

    I missed a lot and felt like i dint miss much by drooling over your article sally 🙂

  15. ramblingtart permalink
    February 23, 2015 9:12 am

    The Street Nights sounds just like something I’d love to do. 🙂 How fun!!

  16. February 23, 2015 4:00 pm

    Wonderful food and wonderful weather…very envious:)

  17. February 24, 2015 11:54 pm

    Your blog looks really cool! I really like your theme and all of these amazing photos. These foods look simply incredible, and as a bit of a food addict I really enjoy seeing your content. You may also find some ideas from my blog ( moodforfoodblog.wordpress.com ). I am trying to post about simple, under-rated foods. Thanks for the inspiration!

  18. March 4, 2015 2:10 pm

    What a fabulous inspiring tasty post, Sally! Yum yum yumm! There is a whole lot of different foods out there with those cool food trucks! x

  19. March 10, 2015 4:57 pm

    What a large range!! Street food still hasn’t really sunk in here in Belgium, and when they do it, it usually posh. Great to see Pizza Pilgrims there!

  20. March 18, 2015 11:13 am

    Catching up on your posts Sally. Always informative reads. Agree with Arva, street food here is a disappointment to me even though it’s miles ahead of where it was years ago. This coming from a New Yorker…

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  1. Street Feast, Abu Dhabi Food Festival 2015 | Foodie&Fabulous
  2. A Moving Hidden Gem of Dubai | Ghaf Kitchen | IshitaUnblogged

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