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.