On the hunt for cheap eats in the land of the gold-encrusted steak
Dubai may the city of gold-encrusted steaks (why, Nusr-Et, why?), the AED 2,500 (a mere USD 680 or GBP 483) Beluga and Dom Perignon brunch, and even a biryani that costs AED 1,000 (USD 270 or GBP193) and yes, you've guessed it, is covered in gold. It's also the place where your supermarket bill can leave you gasping for breath. But does it always have to be that expensive to eat here? With the pandemic having hit our pockets, I set out on a mission to discover if it's possible to eat a full, healthy meal for one for AED 25 (USD 6.80 or GBP 4.83). And fortunately, dear reader, the answer is a resounding yes. Loosen your belt and follow me on a belly-busting journey of discovery.
Aryaas Veg Restaurant, Mankhool
Over 3 million Indians make the UAE their home, so it's no surprise that you can find some great and affordable Indian food in Dubai. Opt for a lunchtime thali, a one-stop, one-plate meal usually comprising a mound of rice or bread with a selection of curries and chutneys accompanying it, and you're likely to be full for the rest of the day. Aryaas Veg Restaurant isn't perhaps the most atmospheric place (at least not during Covid times, with social distancing and fewer occupied tables), but the food is good, tasty and filling. We ordered one of the Unlimited South Indian Meals loaded with rasam, poriyal kootu, dal, veg kuruma, mini vada, paratha, curd, pickles, pappad and more. Unlimited or not, we were stuffed after the first serving. Visually it ran the spectrum of all of the shades of brown you can imagine and was served on a fairly basic metal plate that reminded me of things I've seen in hospitals. But at AED22.50 for a delicious veggie feast it would be churlish to be bothered by such things. I did, however, suffer from food envy as my dining companion chomped his way through the Limited (ha!) North Indian Combo, watching as he slurped down those creamy, buttery, nutty gravies that I love so much. At AED 19.50, I'll definitely be going back to fix my food FOMO. If you feel like splurging beyond your AED25 budget, consider adding on a plate of Mushroom Manchurian, a Chinese-Indian dish that has the crunch and tang of Korean fried chicken, yet is completely vegetarian. Of the many I've tried across the city, this one has to be my fave. Worth the extra AED 20 if you're feeling flush.
Saarangaa Bojan Shala, Mankhool
Don't worry about remembering the name - just call it SBS. Everyone does. There are a few branches of Saarangaa Bojan Shala across the city, but I always go to the one in Mankhool a couple of doors away from Fabindia where I can browse the colourful kurtas while my brain and body try to recover from the huge influx of food before attempting to drive home. SBS is a brightly lit dining room with yellow walls, a mysterious "party room", and an endless video loop of best-selling menus items that's guaranteed to have you deciding to come back before you've even finished today's meal. SBS's team of chefs from Tamil Nadu and Kerala turn out crispy dosas as long as your arm, moreish uttapams and crumbly coconut puttu, amongst other items on the encyclopaedic menu. But go for the Thali with Poori served on a banana leaf with eleven small metal cups filled with dhal, veg curries, poriyal, kootu, pickles, curd, buttermilk and sliced fresh fruit, accompanied by a crispy puffed-up poori and a huge dollop of steaming rice. At AED 24 it's incredibly good value, and I'd be astonished if anyone could finish it all. Alternatively, try the Mini Thali for AED17, which is anything but mini. And how can you not love a restaurant that starts off its menu with a section called "Stimulators"? The SBS website promises to offer customers "a wide variety of Indian delicacies with modest prices your taste buds will fall in love with", and that's exactly what they do.
Al Mallah, Satwa
On my first ever visit to Dubai my friends brought me for lunch to Al Mallah, an outdoor Lebanese grill on a street corner in Satwa with green neon lights, red and yellow plastic chairs, and a slightly retro air about it, which is not surprising since they've been serving affordable food here since 1979. They're rightly famous for their shwarma which you'll see rotating roadside and which chefs deftly slice, wrap and serve in mere seconds. Is it the best shwarma in town? Probably not. Last time we went it was a bit dry, but then again it was in the middle of a pandemic and they were hardly doing a roaring trade so I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. Sitting by the side of the road to people-watch in one of the most interesting of Dubai's neighbourhood makes up for any gripes you may have. Order a shwarma sandwich (AED 9) with a small portion of tasty, crunchy pickles on the side and a cheese manakish (AED 10), and you'll still have change to order extra garlic paste. And everything always needs extra garlic paste.
Chef Lanka, Karama
Many moons ago I used to do PR for the Sri Lanka Tourist Board and on my first visit to the country I discovered a cuisine that slapped me in the face with its deliciousness. The funnily named string hoppers (I always visualised some kind of cartoon frog when I ordered them), creamy cashew nut curry which was a revelation, smooth dhal dotted with curry leaves and mustard seeds, the sweet crunch of jaggery. I was instantly hooked. Since then I've always hunted out Sri Lankan restaurants wherever I've lived, with varying degrees of success. Here in Dubai I head to Chef Lanka, serving Sri Lankan dishes as authentic as you can get at pocket-friendly prices in a small shop in Karama with colourful wooden masks on the wall. It's a fairly basic spot, but the food is far from basic. Bring a friend and combine your AED 25 per person budgets and order to share. A dish of brinjol moju pickled eggplant salad, a bowl of prawn curry and a filling vegetable kotthu will take you AED 4.75 over your budget, but let's ignore that and get on with eating. The sour tang of the brinjol, the coconuty gravy of the curry and the satisfying chewy texture of the chopped roti in the kotthu will have you coming back for more a few days later, as it always does us. Or come on a Friday for the Sri Lankan Lamprais Rice, a mix of samba rice with cashew nut curry, cutlet, brinjal moju, seeni sambol, egg and fried chicken, all wrapped up in a banana leaf and a layer of tin foil. It's like opening a birthday present. Stop by the snack counter as you leave and pick up a couple of fish buns (soft white bread with a spicy fish filling) for later. They're perfect with a cup of tea.
Al Falamanki, Jumeirah Beach Road
One of the loveliest Lebanese cafés in town, Al Falamanki is where comfy vintage armchairs are set against flower-filled gardens, and the clatter of backgammon tiles and the sweet scent of shisha fill the air. The food is excellent, but it doesn't quite fit the "cheap eats" credentials that we've set for ourselves. But here's a secret. Come for breakfast and you can dine in these dreamy surroundings well within the AED 50 for two budget. The mini mankeesh set, priced at AED 35, comes with five fresh-from-the-oven pastries, a handful of olives and some fresh raw veggies, and two cups of coffee or tea. Or try the AED 40 Al Falamanki tray with foul medammas, balila, hommos fatteh and eggs with veggies and olives, again with drinks for two. Frankly, it's a steal, and since the lovely people at Al Falamanki consider breakfast to last until 5pm, you can enjoy it pretty much any time of day. There's also the option to add on shisha for AED 35 should you be so inclined. It's one of the most affordable breakfasts you can find in the Jumeirah neighbourhood, and they don't mind if you linger for a couple of hours to soak up the lovely surroundings.
Everest Restaurant, Meena Bazaar
Twelve years ago I travelled to Nepal and one of the first places I went to was Pilgrims Book House on a dusty road in the back streets of Thamel. It was just the kind of place I love to start a trip - full of informative and slightly obscure books, with a small courtyard café in the back where I leafed through my purchases and ate a dish of masala cashew nuts that was frankly life-changing. Subsequently I learnt that the bookshop had burnt down with its entire collection lost to the flames, which is a tragic loss. I've never found masala cashews as good as the ones I ate there, but I have found Nepalese food in a few places, including here. Hidden in a back street in Meena Bazaar in Bur Dubai lies Everest Restaurant. You'll have to search this one out, but the poster of Mount Everest outside the door should give you a clue. Head upstairs to the small (and very basic) dining room for a menu straight from the streets of Kathmandu. You can't go to Nepal and not have momo dumplings, and that is what you must have here too - choose from veg, chicken and "buff", or buffalo meat. A plate of steamed chicken momos will set you back AED 17, or go for the Nepali Special Veg Khana Set for AED21. Different dhals, pickles and curries will be spooned out onto your plate, and you can ask for your more of your favourites. They also have a dish called Sadheko Peanut on the menu, which isn't quite masala cashews, but features some of the same tang and spice I remember from my trip all those years ago.
Tent Jumeirah, Kite Beach
Tent Jumeirah is something of an anomaly, a seaside kiosk on Dubai's most popular public beach that seems to have expanded organically onto the sand with seats made from fishing boats, areas to lounge with cushions, and camping-style director's chairs set out on the sand. No doubt it wasn't organic at all and a lot of complicated licensing and zoning went into it, but it retains an ad-hoc feel with its vintage phones, TVs and photos that feel as if they've come straight from the owner's grandfather's villa. And best of all, it's open 24 hours a day, every day. It's as casual as you get, and I love to go there at sunrise when everything is quiet and the light is perfect. Your AED 25 will get you a bowl of delicious, hot-from-the-oil luqaimat, or kanfaroosh as they call them here, deep-fried dough balls in date syrup with a sprinkling of sesame seeds. They're crunchy on the outside and fluffy on the inside, and once you start eating them you can't stop. Pair them with a small pot of karak spiced milk tea and you're bang on AED 25. The combination is so sweet that your teeth might fall out, but you'll enjoy your early morning breakfast or midnight snack as they do. I just discovered they have a website which mysteriously features a picture of Western women drinking wine, but don't be misled. This is not a licensed place, and it's all the better for it.
And there you have it, tasty and plentiful affordable eats in this often eye-wateringly expensive city. This is just the beginning of my search and is by no means an exhaustive list. It doesn't even touch on the samosa-and-tea combo you can get on the street for a couple of Dirhams, or the Chips Oman and cheese poratta from the stall next to the abra station on the Creek, or the multiple excellent places in Karama's curry quarter. These are all fodder for future stories. In the meantime I'll continue travelling on the trail of cheap eats in Dubai and share my findings with you. Bon appétit!