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Downtown, Cairo, Egypt.
Ahwa Bustan: Traditional Alleyway Café
There are dozens of famed alleyway spots hidden in the Downtown Cairo maze. Ahwa Bustan is close to Talaat Harb Square and is frequented by leftist intellectuals, writers, artists and others just passing by. It’s basically a long alleyway with colourful plastic chairs, dozens of shishas lined all in a row and some good old baladi charm.
Ahwa Bustan is a popular choice in the area, offering shisha and a variety of hot and cold drinks. There are fresh juices available, including mango, strawberry, orange and banana milk. When it comes to baladi ahwas, Ahwa Bustan prides itself in having some of the freshest juice around. Non-juice options include yogurt drinks that can be sweetened with honey. Karkadeh is also available warm or cold, served nicely with ice and quite refreshing.
The street café also carries a selection of delicious hot drinks. Traditional Turkish coffee is served piping hot and is extremely flavourful. The Nescafé is also lovingly prepared with the milk boiled in the Nescafé and topped with foam. It’s a bit of a Nescafé-cappuccino, if you will. Bustan also makes a mean sahlab; arguably Downtown’s finest, in fact. It comes extremely thick and laden with enough nuts and raisins to be a small snack.
The shisha, like a lot of other baladi ahwas in Downtown Cairo, is hit-or-miss; so don’t expect anything fantastic. There’s no variety outside of apple or meassel flavours, either. Most attendants go for the atmosphere, not the shisha. That being said; before you even find a seat, there will likely be a shisha in your face, so at least you can depend on that.
During the day, it’s nice and relatively empty. It’s a great place to go to read, sketch or sit with a friend. There are also backgammon boards for interested parties. It can get quite crowded in the evening, but no matter how packed it is, there always seems to be an extra space for one more table and a few chairs. Also, the waiters at Bustan don’t mind whatsoever if you bring food from outside; so it’s quite common to see regulars eating their takeaway dinners from nearby fast-food legends Kazaz or Felfela.The ahwa is very wallet-friendly. A shisha costs 2LE while juices and Nescafé go for around 5LE. Ahwa Bustan stretches the length of an alleyway between Café Riche and a clothing store.
Cafés in Cairo are a dime a dozen, and competition is pretty brutal. That usually translates into some rather strange themes and gimmicks across the capital. In Mohandiseen, Bon Bini follows suit with a kitschy jazz vibe.
With two floors and an outdoor seating area, the café is spacious with a peculiar variety of seating areas,making the whole place interestingly asymmetrical. Although the furniture seems dated and worn, the running jazz theme creates a charming, nostalgic feel. Jazz band statues and antique books give a purposefully vintage edge to the venue.
The polite and courteous staff are well versed in the menu. Akin to the typical Cairene café scene, the menu is awash with a wide variety of sandwiches, pizzas and entrees, along with a shisha section.
For appetisers, we ordered tomato soup (17.95LE) and a fried Texas platter (18.95LE) – fries with chilli cheese sauce. For our mains we ordered one Verona pizza (49.95LE) topped with chicken, roast beef slices, olives, tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese, alongside a chef filet (74.95LE) which transpired to be a beef strip stuffed with mushrooms and roast beef, topped with a butter sauce.
First on our table came the extraordinarily hot soup and fries; so hot in fact, that we had to let both dishes cool off for a few minutes. Served with crispy croutons and a thick dollop of cream, the generously-sized soup was full of flavour. Despite being topped with a thick layer of cheese, the fries were well-cooked and surprisingly light.
Later, both the pizza and filet proved to be even better. The pizza was large enough to satisfy two, and boasted a thick, fluffy base. The fillet was cooked to perfection, without sacrificing the meat’s tenderness, and laced with a rich, flavourful butter sauce. The sides of fresh vegetables and smooth mashed potatoes were a welcome addition to the meal.
For dessert, we enjoyed a cold fruit crepe (19.95LE), made with apples and bananas and topped with Nutella. Unlike the conventional serving of crepes, our crepe was laid flat – as opposed to folded - topped with the fresh, ripe ingredients.
Although the quirky decor and unusual ambience may not suit everyone’s taste, Bon Bini is a great venue for casual outings – and the kitchen certainly delivers.