A Culinary Tour Of Dubai, An Unlikely Junk Food Mecca

I’ve flown halfway around the world† and one of my first observations is this: Emiratis love Cheetos. At my first lunch in Dubai, at Parker’s, an American fast food-style burger joint in the Dubai Mall, it was Flamin’ Hots, covered in red dust, sprinkled atop bowls of mac and cheese. At SALT, touted as Dubai’s first Emirati-run food truck, the Cheetos (not Flamin’ Hot, but some other type of spicy variety that we don’t have here) came inside fried chicken burgers and atop one of three fry concoctions — dotted in creamy white labneh (virtually indistinguishable from sour cream n onion dip) over u-shaped french fries.

They’re cut that way to add dipping potential, you see. You can actually fill the U-shaped potato with labneh and fit a Cheeto on top so that you get labneh dip, Cheeto, and fried potato in the same bite. Well designed in that way, but kind of overkill, if we’re being honest (crunchy french fries don’t really need crunchy Cheetos as a garnish). The Flamin’ Hots-over-mac-and-cheese combination, on the other hand, was genius, and in all honesty, probably my new favorite bowl of mac and cheese.

And at least at Parker’s, the kind of place which, in the states, you’d expect to see filled with exuberant bearded dorks whose Twitter bios include something about bacon, the dining room is filled mostly with abaya-clad women, peering down at their cheeseburgers and milk shakes over the top of tinted, $200 sunglasses below sculpted, $100 eyebrows (eyebrows gain outsize importance when you keep your hair covered).

Junk food, it seems, is fashionable in Dubai. You can’t even get into Parker’s without a key — not that the keys actually unlock anything, they’re solely symbols of exclusivity. Prospective patrons are meant to find the keys somewhere in the mall via a scavenger hunt, using clues from the restaurant’s social media accounts.

One of the waitresses (most of the male staff is dressed in backwards baseball caps — ball caps apparently being another Dubai fad after the heart throb crown prince, Hamdan Al-Maktoum*, was photographed wearing one) regales us with stories of patrons without keys who offered thousands of dollars in attempt to buy their way in, but still weren’t allowed. This seems unlikely and I didn’t personally witness it, but that’s the restaurant’s line. In either case, it seems indisputable that the air of exclusivity is worth a lot here. I asked Tarek, a manager at SALT, whether all the social media initiatives were designed to create exclusivity, and he said, simply, “Yes, exactly.”

Talal Al Rashed, a “hospitality consultant” from Kuwait, educated in Switzerland, and living in Dubai (not an atypical background around here) with a big Instagram following, says it goes further than that. He sees all the rigamarole as a way that restaurants here are trying to mimic bars and nightclubs in the West. Because for Muslim kids, they perform sort of the same function.

“Dubai is a young city, so they go after the trend, the hot places to be seen,” he says. “And because it’s only in restaurants that most of them find it normal to go to and socialize without social barriers. Many restaurants capitalized on the lack of social places where females and males can socialize and opened places inspired by clubs, lounges, beach clubs.”

Which means, like everything else in Dubai, neither Parker’s nor SALT are short on hype. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that Dubai’s economy is entirely hype-based. One of the biggest misconceptions about the place is that all this ridiculousness was built on oil money (ridiculous in the form of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest skyscraper, built in 2010, or the Burj Al Arab, the sail-shaped, comically opulent seven-star hotel built in 1999 — which make up the two most iconic images of Dubai in the west). But Dubai never really had that much oil, at least not compared to its neighbors, and most of it has run out anyway. By 2006, oil only accounted for 3% of Dubai’s GDP. Even at its peak (in 1991), Dubai was extracting 450,000 barrels of oil a day. By 2008, it was down to 60,000 barrels. Its UAE neighbor Abu Dhabi, by contrast, was drawing 2.5 million barrels a day.

Mostly, Dubai was, and still is, built by selling the dream of what it could be. The palm island (exactly what it sounds like, a massive, artificial island shaped like a palm tree) being the most representative example. The government supposedly financed the project by selling plots on the island, which sold out in three days, based on nothing but a drawing. At the time, it was just open ocean and sand. Like I said, it’s a hype-based economy. You don’t come for the history (there really isn’t much; the place didn’t have electricity until the 1960s), you come to see how badly they want you to come here. It’s like a touristic Ponzi scheme.

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Roger Federer and Andre Agassi playing tennis on the Burj Al-Arab’s helipad, 2005

Which raises the obvious question: does the food live up to the hype? At SALT, it doesn’t, at least, not according to Vivek, a Bangalore-born local I met over a Syrian lunch in Deira, Dubai’s old town.

“Except for the lotus shake,” he adds.

Vivek, by the way, speaks English with a barely perceptible accent and knows only a few words of Arabic. Which actually isn’t that rare in Dubai. Actual Emiratis only make up about 10% of the population, and the other 90% — Indians, Pakistanis, Southeast Asians, Russians, Europeans, and Americans — mostly use English as a common tongue. Vivek sells pre-owned Ferraris and Maseratis, loves country music, and has a big Hindu-themed sleeve tattoo on his upper arm.

When I mention I’m from San Francisco he recommends a restaurant I hadn’t heard of. He’s been in Dubai 10 years.

In any case, for my taste buds, SALT was pretty good. To be fair, having landed only a few days prior, I probably wasn’t subjected to as much hype as Vivek. And anyway, it’s just burgers and fries. Making a burger is not a complicated thing (nor should it be). I do enjoy that everything seems to come with a spicy option here, from the jalapeño burger at Salt (above average) to the Flamin’ Hot mac and cheese at Parker’s (a revelation, honestly).

Hecho En Dubai’s “Walking Nachos.” It was filled with meat and jalapeños and guacamole.

Vivek’s favorite “lotus shake” is a popular dessert flavor in Dubai, based on Lotus cookies. You know those crispy Biscoff wafer cookies they give you on flights, that are great for coffee dunking and kind of taste like caramelized graham cracker? That’s lotus. It also goes by speculoos. And man, it’s delicious. I couldn’t care less about Nutella, Kinder is confusing, and I can’t even imagine what would’ve had to happen to your palate to make you enjoy those revolting chocolate-covered cherry travesties Scandinavians are always raving about, but lotus is the rare sweet I’d consider smuggling home in my carry-on, or at least, raving about in front of less-traveled friends who’d wish I’d shut up.

They know their sweets in this part of the world. So I guess it’s no surprise that they’d go nuts for greasy fries and burgers. Or mac and cheese. Or tortilla chips covered in ground meat, cheese, sour cream, jalapeños, and avocado, served in a Doritos bag. Which I ate a few days later at Hecho en Dubai, a Mexican food truck that was part of “Truckers DXB” on Dubai’s new business bay. It was a lot like what we used to call a Frito Boat where I grew up. Only conceived in this case (apparently with no direct Frito Boat influence) by an Arab, using Mexican ingredients, assembled by a team of South Asians, inside a Gulfstream-inspired trailer built in Dubai.

Dubai definitely makes you rethink certain ideas you have about authenticity. But it’s there, in its own way.

Dubai certainly isn’t a place you’re going to go to eat organic local produce. It is literally a desert, and most of your food is flown in, at great expense, and carbon footprint. The “wagyu beef” on SALT’s menu comes from Australia. Does it need to be wagyu beef? Absolutely not (whether “wagyu beef” that’s not from Japan is even really wagyu beef is a subject for another article that I’ll leave to the beef experts). You can actually watch SALT’s grillmasters smash down their patties and then scrape all that fat, for which wagyu is famed, directly into the grease trap. I kind of hate every restaurant that tells me what fine cut of beef they ground up to make their burger. It’s ground meat. Part muscle, part fat. The color and fat content are really all that matter, if you’re making it with some delicate cut prized for it’s texture, you’re wasting your time, and a cut of meat better utilized elsewhere. “Wagyu” is just a hypey trendy term that sounds good on a menu.

“People in Dubai like to eat fashionably,” is how Tony Jardella, Chef de Cuisine of Perry & Blackwelders, a Texas-themed bar and grill in Dubai put it to me. Jardella is English.

The ramen burger, filled with chicken katsu, from Yakitate

A bit less charitably, Syed Ali, in his exposé of the place, Dubai: A Gilded Cage, wrote “Dubai is a city whose broad identity, given the over 90% expatriate population, is rooted in a generic notion of the upscale.”

A “generic notion of the upscale” would certainly explain the need to specify “wagyu” beef in a burger that didn’t need it. That being said, it was a good burger, either way.

All of which raises the question: did I really fly halfway around the world to eat Cheetos and sliders? Actually, maybe so. The idea of “only in Dubai” is a bit of mirage. Things that are true to some extent everywhere are especially true here: that what’s “authentic” here — where virtually all of the food comes from somewhere else — is much more the peculiar combination of outside influences than it is the “local” flavors themselves.

Besides, it’s always fascinating to see what you thought of as your own culture reflected back at you through a fun house mirror. As Vincent Vega would say, it’s about the little differences.

At one end of the spectrum in Dubai, you can find “authentic” (whatever that means) middle eastern/south Asian fare, like balaleet, sweet noodles served with a fried egg on top that Emiratis eat for breakfast. The breakfast spread at Arabian tea house in Al Bastakiya was one of the highlights of my trip.

But “Middle Eastern” is pretty broad. The menu was sort of a greatest hits reel of regional favorites from North Africa and the Levant. Foul (a fava bean dish, in this case with tomatoes and potatoes added, and delicious) from Egypt. Labna from Lebanon. Hummus from… well, everywhere. I had some of the local bread — made crepe style, by scraping liquid dough/batter over a hot flat grill — layered with eggs and a creamy spread. It was great, and I kept dunking it in this creamy white stuff that was part of the breakfast platter.

“This is great, what do you call this?” I asked the waiter, pointing to the white stuff. It tasted kind of like cream cheese.

“Is Kraft cheese,” he said.

Ahh, so that’s why it tastes like cream cheese. It literally is Kraft cream cheese.

Immediately I was transported back to an incident from my childhood. I was about 10 or 11 and mom was picking me up from Ryan Kimoto’s house, who was my best friend at the time. His grandmother (whose shouted phone greetings were a favorite comedy bit of mine at the time) was serving us sushi. “This is so good,” my mom said. “What’s in here?”

“Spum sushi,” Ryan’s grandma said.

“Spum sushi, wow. I don’t think I’ve ever had that before,” my mom was saying, as Ryan’s grandfather tottered into the room, carrying a newspaper underneath one arm.

“It’s spam,” Ryan’s grandfather corrected his wife, plunking down into his Lay-Z-Boy. “Spam sushi.”

You know, that exotic delicacy wrapped in aluminum by the Hormel Corporation whose name became a generic term for junk.

Aroos Damascus, in Dubai’s Deira district. That pastry was filled with rice and meat, and it was amazing.

But yes, most things in Dubai come from elsewhere and are built on shouty marketing and hype. How “local” any food is feels debatable. Like any tourist destination, at worst, you’re going to find worse versions of food you’ve eaten better back home. Walking past the glass, open kitchen of one of the restaurants in the Burj Al-Arab (which costs at least $2,000 a night for the smallest suite — which is still massive — during the off season, and which we were only allowed inside through a special tour set up by the tourism board), I watched a sous chef empty a bag of Green Giant frozen corn into a mise en place tray.

“I call it the ‘Dubai Test,'” a friend from my gym told me when I mentioned I was going there, where his sister lives. “You tell me why you want to go there and I’ll tell you where you can get it better somewhere else.”

Which certainly has some truth to it, you’ll surely find better skiing in Switzerland than in the Mall of the Emirates, though without the giant middle finger to God (they also have penguins). I imagine I could also probably find a better Syrian meal than the one I had at Dubai’s Aroos Damascus by actually going to Syria, but that’s not going to happen any time soon.

At best, you find local chefs cooking up winning concoctions, catering to cosmopolitan pan-ethnic clientele, inspired by contact with food traditions from all over the world — whether that looks like cheeto-covered macaroni and cheese, fish tacos, Indian street food, or Arabian breakfast. Hype aside, delicious doesn’t need a translator.

Better than the burgers? Indian street food. Vegetarian too.

†It’s a perfect 12-hours time difference, in fact, I didn’t even have to reset my watch. We actually flew over the north pole (more or less) to get here, which doesn’t make sense when you’re looking at a map until you remember, “oh right, the world is round.”

*Full name Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum — in Arabic, “bin” means son of, and “al” generally precedes a family name, so that whole mouthful essentially just means that Hamdan is the son of Mohammed, the current Sheikh of Dubai (Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum), who is himself the son of Rashid, all part of the Al-Maktoum family, who’ve been ruling Dubai since 1833. In that time, none of them have been deposed or assassinated (in contrast to the US, which has had four presidents die by assassination in that span), so that while Dubai has one of the least democratic governments in the world, it also has one of the most stable.


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Makin that bread. Latergram from Arabian Tea House

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Of course I tried the camel burger. It was okay. Mostly just tasted like a middle eastern spiced meatball.

The “Back to School” cake at Parker’s, with chocolate crayons

Aroos’ doughnut-shaped falafel

View from the hotel