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Abbasiya, Cairo, Egypt.
Al Azhar Chinese Restaurant: Authentic Chinese Cuisine, Uyghur Style
True foodies are forever exasperated at the fact that most Chinese restaurants in Cairo serve a westernised version of the cuisine. Some Chinese students at Al Azhar University came to the same conclusion and opened up their own restaurant close to their dorms, where one can experience traditional Chinese food for great value.
The students are of Uyghur decent, a populace that is predominantly Muslim and therefore the food is ‘halal’ and pork-free. Al Azhar Chinese restaurant is very small and typifies its, ‘hole in the wall’ nickname. Finding it is quite difficult but if you follow our instructions you should be fine. Take Saleh Salem Road in the direction of Al Azhar Park leaving Heliopolis. Don’t take the flyover but stay underneath it. Halfway underneath the bridge and close to the tunnel, take a right. This street leads up to the Taki Mattress building. At the building, take a left into the street right across from it. Then, within two minutes, you will find the restaurant on your right hand side. It is identifiable by the Chinese characters on the signage.
Apart from not having an official name, it also lacks a toilet so make sure to go beforehand. The staff hardly speak English; they only speak a bit of traditional Arabic , as well as Chinese of course. The menu is made up of a Pharaonic photo album featuring pictures of the dishes; we have no idea about the actual names.
We opted for a random mix of the options, most of which were priced between 10LE and 20LE each, and ended up with beef, fish, chicken and tofu. In addition we also ordered several soups (also 10-20LE each). The soups were the biggest we’ve ever encountered in our lives and easily make for a meal on their own. The extremely spicy noodle soup with beef was particularly filling. The noodles were succulent and obviously homemade. The noodle soup is not for the fainthearted; it was super spicy and had us tearing up a bit. We also tried the beef broth which was very good although a bit on the salty side, resulting in a thirst that could only be cured by their delicious green tea.
The absolute best dish we tasted was the beef with garlic in a spicy tomato sauce. The meat was succulent and the flavours were fresh and well balanced. The fish was also prepared well and was covered with cumin – a popular herb in the Uyghur cuisine. The winning dish, however, was the tofu. It came prepared in a tomato based sauce and seduced even the strongest carnivore in our group.
In the end, we paid 249LE for a group of seven people. This price includes a few soft-drinks and tea. Overall, the restaurant is definitely worth a visit as it is quite the experience.
When we think of comfort food, our minds usually go to a place where pastas, pizzas and burgers rule – which might explain why we have endless burger joints and Italian restaurants in Cairo. Caruso’s American Cafe fuses those two things – burgers and pizza. It’s an idea that could be a solution to world peace, but sadly it was “nightmare dressed like a daydream.”
Newly open at Galleria Moon Valley in Heliopolis, Caruso’s is divided into two areas; the indoor space is pretty small and feels like a kitchen with wooden units hung on the wall. Besides the seemingly out of place French windows used in the facade of the cafe, the outdoor area didn’t have anything special to it – just a simple generic seating arrangement.
We started our meal with Chilli Cheese Fries (30LE) as an appetiser, but only because the rest of the appetisers weren’t available at the time of our visit. The fries were cooked-well, but the cheddar cheese didn’t melt enough and the Texas chilli wasn’t really Texas chilli, as it had red beans in it – Texas chilli is all about the beef and spices. This was just the beginning of what was a pretty disastrous meal.
We then ordered the Bacon Cheese Pizza Burger (65LE); served with fries and coleslaw, it’s made up of a beef patty topped with lettuce, tomato, bacon, a slice of cheese and a little bit too much of their special sauce – which had a strong mayo flavour – all filled between two mini pizzas. The concept of mini pizzas as a bun is great, but the dough was thick and chewy and the pizza sauce didn’t work at all with the ‘special sauce’. The beef patty on its own, meanwhile, didn’t have any remarkable flavours and was slightly overcooked. You can’t eat it without making a mess and it dishonoured the great legacies of the pizza and the burger.
We also tried the Skyline Hot Dog (43LE), which is topped with chilli, an unnoticeable amount of shredded cheddar cheese, diced onions, peppers and tomatoes. Suffering the same problems as the chilli cheese fries, the spices in the chilli were overwhelming and the cheese didn’t melt, making us wonder what was so special as to make it the signature hotdog, as mentioned in the menu.
Sadly, we had higher expectations for Caruso’s rather un-American Cafe, but the service was poor, the digital tablet menu was very slow (what’s wrong with printed menus?) and a lot of items were unavailable, including all desserts. The pizza burger might have worked as a publicity stunt, but the biggest problem is the confused identity; the food may seem American on paper, but it certainly isn’t American in flavour.