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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.
The Cairo dining scene is notorious for its quick embracement of food fads; the cupcake, macaroon and sushi trends are just some examples that have occured over the last few years. The latest craze swooping through the nation seems to be that of gourmet junk food with new chains popping up almost every other week.
Mince, one of the strongest contenders in that category, recently opened a second branch in Heliopolis. Needless to say, we had to check out how it compared to the original Zamalek branch.
We instantly fell in love with the simplicity and cosy feel of the venue. Taking the American diner theme and putting a modern spin on it, less tacky fixtures and furniture and an easy-on-the-eyes platinum colour scheme ensures that Mince looks the part.
The menu, which was laid down on our chosen table in the outdoor seating area within a few minutes, is anything but boring or cliché. With breakfast specials, starters, salads, burgers, hotdogs, main dishes and dessert options, Mince seemingly has it all. The burgers come in two patty sizes: 170g and 250g. A few unique, not to mention delicious-sounding, options definitely stood out including the Calamari Crispy (44LE), the Smoked Burger (38LE/50LE), featuring raspberry jam as one of its toppings , the Mexican burger (42LE/55LE), with guacamole and sour cream as toppings, and the Veggie sandwich (36LE).
Upon making up our minds, our waiter came by to jot down our order and made sure to ask about how well we wanted our patties to be cooked. Twenty minutes later, our food was laid before us asking to be devoured. The Fries (12LE), which came in an ample amount, were delightfully crisp and non-greasy.
The 170g Mozza Burger (36LE), which consisted of a beef patty topped with fried mozzarella cheese, pickles, tomatoes, onions, lettuce and Mince’s signature sauce, was, despite having so many toppings, lacking in any strong flavours. We did however, love the taste of the fried mozzarella added to an otherwise basic burger. The 170g BBQ Special burger (40LE) was, on the other hand, bursting with more flavour perhaps due to its excessive toppings of caramelized onions, bacon, BBQ sauce and American cheese. It’s worth noting, however, that the beef patties, in general, needed more seasoning and/or marination.
The service, on an ending note, was notably stellar all throughout our visit, with the waiters always being around to offer refills. The burgers, despite their undeniably good quality, seemed to lack distinctive, hard-to-forget flavours and did come in a limited portion. There's always a danger with small, local restaurants when they expand into other branches; quite often, the elements that made the original so popular are difficult to replicate. In the case of something like the burger patties, however, that shouldn't be the case; a recipe is a recipe. But at the time of our visit, they just simply didn't live up to the expections set by the Zamalek branch.