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Islamic Cairo, Cairo, Egypt.
El Sheikh Shaaban: Chaotic Egyptian Eatery in Khan El Khalili
Islamic Cairo is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful areas in Cairo. The old houses, the wonderful mosques and madrasas, the arabesque woodwork and the magnificent architecture make you feel like you are back in time. Khan El Khalili is the most famous part of the area and requires survival skills if you want to enter from the side of El Hussein Square. Take one step here and restaurant staff jump in, up and in front of you, brandishing their menus in your face.
The only one who didn’t beat this reviewer up with a menu was the waiter at El Sheikh Shaaban restaurant, so we took a seat there. According to the banner on top of the door, this restaurant has existed in El Hussein for a hundred years. Thankfully, the seats are not as old; and the couches and tables all look fairly new. By new, we mean they are perhaps just twenty years old.
As soon as you sit down, you are presented with two bottles of water that are opened immediately. With it comes a glass filled with fresh mint. We liked the mint but we didn’t appreciate the immediate bottle opening, as we hadn’t ordered the bottle yet would be charged for it later. Since this is a tourist area, the prices are appropriate to that type of clientele. All drinks, from coffee to juices and sodas, cost 15LE. A shawerma sandwich costs 20LE and a bowl of koshary shockingly costs 15LE. For 45LE, you can order a main course dish like stuffed pigeon or kofta. We sampled the mixed grill with kofta and chicken for 45LE with side dishes of tehina and baba ghanough, both of which cost 15LE.
The food arrived within five minutes and doesn’t come from the restaurant itself. It comes from an unspecified place around the corner and is served on the table on dishes covered with aluminium foil. The kofta and chicken portions were pretty generous with six pieces of kofta and four pieces of chicken. The kofta was nicely grilled and flavourful. Although a bit charred and black on the outside, the grilled chicken was juicy and had that nice grilled flavour, but there was nothing special about it, though. The tehina and baba ghanough tasted extremely strange and arrived warm. The dips’ texture was crumbly and missing about 80% of the necessary ingredients that usually make tehina and baba ghanough taste great.
Our battle for survival continued throughout dinner as we were harassed by street sellers peddling their goods from one side, while cats were stealing our food from the other side. The food at El Sheikh Shaaban is not bad and service is quick, but when the cheque arrived we felt forced into bargaining. Aside from the ridiculously high ‘tourist’ prices that we were charged, the cheque listed an extra 3LE service charge in addition to the 12% service and 10% tax charges.
When we pointed this out to the waiter, the service, tax and extra charge were dropped and we only paid the original price. It is Khan El Khalili after all, where everything is negotiable; even food.
With plenty of new restaurants opening as fast as lightning and raising the bar for fine dining in Cairo, the interest in fast food venues is waning – even burger and pizza places are putting more focus on being gourmet. But, located on Zamalek’s busy 26th of July Street, roasted chicken specialist, Chick Shack, proves that the fast food concept is still popular in Cairo.
Not to be confused in any way with popular American chain, Shake Shack, the eatery’s name attracted some negative attention, but it all played into its publicity. The name is where the similarities end, though; Chick Shack stands out with a unique interior and playful vibe of its own. Some of its standout features include its ringed chandelier, an interesting choice of cold colours and a wall made of A-Treat soda boxes, not to mention the quirky staff uniforms made-up of buttoned-to-the-top shirts, grey trousers, suspenders and hats that Michael Jackson would have been proud of.
The menu is quite simple, with roasted chicken as the main attraction, though other items include Lasagna (34LE), Potato Wedges (8LE), or Tropical Salad (18LE) and can work as side dishes.
We started our meal with Shack Salad (28.50LE) as an appetiser, and as our mains, we went with Half Chicken Meal (55LE) and Chicken Cannelloni (27LE).
A mixture of grilled chicken, green apple cubes, corn, bell pepper, pomegranate and mayo dressing, the Shack Salad was an interesting concoction. We loved the tart taste from the green apple which worked well with the pomegranate and the sweet-corn, but the chicken itself was overcooked and very tough.
Now, let's move to what we actually came for: roasted chicken. Served with sautéed vegetables which had a remarkable garlicky flavour and possibly the best spicy basmati rice, which was cooked to perfection and bursting with Mexican spices, the roasted chicken was well-marinated and had a zesty flavour which popped in every single bite. However, the chicken itself was a little bit undercooked but definitely not raw, and even though it was very tasty, the skin wasn’t as crispy as we would've hoped.
We were worried about the ready-to-serve Chicken Cannelloni, but it was surprisingly tasty. Stuffed with chicken and peppers which had flavours similar to fajitas, the cannelloni was well-cooked and had a generous amount of cream parmesan cheese sauce. Sloppy presentation aside, the cannelloni made for a great vehicle for the chicken.
Overall, there was little to complain about at Chick Shack. The venue stands out as one of the healthier fast food places in Cairo; one that also boasts fantastic service, great staff and a friendly atmosphere. The only downside is that there are no desserts to speak of – but with the concept built on a ready-to-serve approach, maybe a soft serve ice cream machine would be a perfect fit. But that’s just us.