Walking in Tahrir Square in Cairo the week of Egypt’s first free elections, one can’t help notice the proliferation of outposts of Western-based franchises such as Hardees, Pizza Hut, McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken. The juxtaposed images of thousands of young Egyptians protesting issues such as election fraud and the trial of former President Hosni Mubarak with that of the golden arches is stark. It seems that the Arab Spring has not meant liberation from coca-colonialization.
About a half a mile and a ten minute walk from the constant hum of Tahrir Square, off Kasr El Ein Street in the stately and relatively quiet neighborhood of Garden City, there stands a bbq operation that may have the best tasting chicken in all of Cairo. Abdo’s, on El Mobtian Street, consists of a small storefront with space for two tables and a few chairs.
But the real action at Abdo’s happens outside the storefront at night when co-owner Omar Abdel-Salam, aka Abu-Yusef directs the bbq action like maestros used to direct symphony orchestras at the old Cairo Opera House. There are two stalls outside- one designed to store the food that’s going to be cooked and served and the other one is the bbq grill itself. The grill is a work of Egyptian engineering genius. To control the amount of smoke that the grill generates, Omar designed an exhaust chimney that makes his barbecue stand unique.
Though Omar and his brother Adel employ a small staff to help grill and serve the food, as well as clean-up when the shop closes at 1a.m, Abdo’s is really a two-man operation. The brothers work in tandem harmonically: Adel prepping the food and taking care of the shop while Omar’s the restaurant’s grill-master and host.
Because the interior of the shop is so small (it really functions more as a prep kitchen and houses a refrigerator where meat stays for a maximum of two days until a new batch is purchased), most people grab a seat outside and dine al fresco at Abdo’s. Even when Cairo’s sweltering during the summer, most evenings are pleasant with the nearby Nile providing cool winds.
There’s a cliché that taxi drivers in any given city always know where the best cheap eats are because they drive around the city all day and night. And when they want something to eat, they want good food made quickly at reasonable prices. So it may be no coincidence that many of Abdo’s customers are cabdrivers either on a break or finishing a long hard day’s work.
In terms of service, Abdo’s can’t be beat. On any given day, Omar may introduce any one of his customers as “my best friend”. While this sort of talk may be seen as insincere coming from most everyone else, when Omar says it, he means it and his personality is one of the reasons customers who go to Abdo’s usually return. A graduate of Cairo University, Omar juggles his job as pit-master with a day-time gig as marketing manager for a company that produces leather products.
Add to that a daily one hour and half, three mini-bus journey back and forth to Toukh, the small city north of Cairo where Omar lives with his wife and three young children, you’d think he’s be grumpy by the time he gets to Abdo’s. But he isn’t. Omar, who is 37-years-old but admits he looks older, doesn’t let his daily grind affect the way he treats all people, not just his customers.
Amongst Omar’s friends are young and old, Christian and Muslim. “It is good policy to treat all people well,” Omar says. “You must love all people, all things.”
While many customers return to Abdo’s because of Omar’s personality and Adel’s winning smile, it’s really their great food that brings the people back. Espousing the motto keep it simple, Abdo’s menu is relatively small. Inside the shop, there’s a fryer but it’s not for the birds. Adel fries up a few Egyptian delicacies such as fish fillets and beef liver.
As for the grill, Adel spends much of his mornings, prepping the two most popular bbq items at Abdo’s- chicken and skewers of lightly spiced ground meat called kofta. Unlike the colonel, Adel’s recipe isn’t a secret but it special. He painstakingly quarters the chickens every day and marinates them in lemon, salt, black pepper, powdered onion and spicy red pepper powder. The recipe sounds simple but what results is the tenderest and succulent chicken you may ever have had. And unlike some fast food franchises, Abdo’s never uses frozen meat. At Abdo’s, the seasoned and tender meat, authentically Egyptian, stands for itself, not needing thick barbecue sauces to enhance the natural flavor of the chicken.
The attention to detail doesn’t end with Adel. After the meat and chicken’s been prepped, it’s onto the grill where Omar shines as grill master. Instead of using cheaper charcoal, Omar always uses Egyptian wood, like the mesquite which is used by pit masters in America. When someone suggests to Omar that he could save a lot of money using charcoal instead of the premium wood, he scoffs. “I won’t sacrifice the quality for more profits,” he says.
That attitude and the respect and love that Adel and Omar have for both their customers and the food they serve them is something they inherited from their father, Abdo who passed away in April, 2011. Abdo opened the shop in 1967 in the same neighborhood where Omar was born and Adel still lives. At Omar’s you’re truly dining with friends, family and neighbors.
Though Omar has ideas of expanding the business such as creating a website and maybe even getting a larger space for the restaurant, one thing that won’t change is the quality of food that the Abdel-Salam family has been serving their patrons for over 40 years. In a time when Egypt is experiencing historic change, and citizens are excited to see what those changes will bring, one thing that the people of Cairo can still rely on at this little shop in Garden City is great food and great people.