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Dokki, Cairo, Egypt.
Al Shebani: Simple, Quality Yemeni Cuisine in Dokki
About a hundred metres away from the Tahrir Street intersection, the outside grill and the waiters bustling in and out with plates of food makes the restaurant easy to spot.
Al Shebani is a small place, but their food is far superior. We got a spicy tomato and feta blended dip (free), a simple cucumber and tomato salad (2LE) and some chicken broth topped with fenugreek (free) to start off. The dip was good, although a bit on the watery side, whereas the salad was a little dry. The soup tasted like a standard chicken broth; admittedly we were a bit suspicious of unidentifiable floating bits, but assumed they were just pieces of chicken.
As a main course, the fusuleyya (5LE) - a vegetable stew with either red or white beans - comes highly recommended. Aside from the beans, it had tomatoes and just a hint of coriander. For 17LE-25LE you can add meat or chicken to the dish.
Chicken with rice (40LE for a whole chicken, 20LE for half and 10LE for a quarter) is another favourite. It didn't look like much, with the chicken carelessly piled onto a heap of yellow rice, but the meat was juicy and the skin nicely crisp. Beware of the bones though.
Make sure to order a big slab of the delicious Yemeni flat bread (5LE) to scoop up your food with. Delivered straight from the oven, the bread is warm and soft, yet pleasingly crispy.
With the place being so small, the friendly waiters are just a wave of your hand away. Most of them don't really speak English and the menu only comes in Arabic, but hand-gesturing and pointing works just fine. An easy solution to lack of communication is to order a mix of their staples (fish, chicken, vegetables and rice) and they will fill your table up mezza-style. The food is served quickly and delivered to your table piping hot.
Bear in mind that Al Shebani is a simple place; don't expect super clean tables or a freshly swept floor. You'll get a plastic spoon to eat your food with - they don't even have forks - and a sheet of blank paper will serve as your tablecloth. The food from the grill is served in chipped stew pots on worn wooden trays and the cold food and side dishes are served on metallic plates.
Soft drinks (3LE) are drunk from the can, the tea (2LE) is served in a plastic cup and you'll also get plastic cups for water (2LE). The place has air-conditioning, but its effectiveness strongly depends on where you sit; so on hot and sweaty days you might want to move around a bit to find a good spot.
Aside from the tasty food, Al Shebani is a great value for money; a table filled with enough meat, rice and vegetables to feed four people only set us back a mere 65LE.
Levantine restaurants have blown up over the past few years in Cairo, but finding a good one isn’t always easy; there are so many, including local ones, which end up being a pale imitation at best.
Abu Youssef, on the other hand, is a pure Syrian restaurant, starting from the management to the chefs both inside the kitchen and on the shawerma grill outside, only leaving the waiters as locals. Hidden in Hegaz St in Mohandiseen, the venue is almost always full and even a few celebrities have been spotted dining there.
After taking our seats in the indoor dining area, we looked into the menu and ordered the Taboula (10LE) and Mesabaha (Syrian Hummus paste) (10LE) as our cold appetisers, alongside the Grilled Kobeba meal (35LE),the Shawerma Extra (40LE), Large Tawook meal (45LE), and half grilled chicken (40LE) for our main dishes.
About Twenty minutes later, we saw our waiter coming with almost all of our main dishes, as well as the grilled kobiba which came with fries, tomeyah and pickles, while the grilled chicken came with an extra mesabaha and a green salad.
After being overwhelmed with the number of plates in front of us, we started with the cold appetisers first; the mesabaha, which is basically a hummus paste, was drizzled with some olive oil keeping it light and smooth, while bursting with rich flavour which made us hurry for the next bite.
The taboula, meanwhile, was a green sensation; rich with a zesty and refreshing flavour, the salad had a good mix of parsley, mint, bulgur and onion with some chopped tomatoes topped with lemon juice and olive oil giving it a flavourful taste.
The Grilled Kobeba Meal came as four burger bun-sized pieces with fries alongside some green salad and pickles. The kobiba itself was very well cooked with a slightly crunchy outer shell and juicy minced beef filled interior, which was bursting with flavour, with a light spiciness that gave it an extra kick.
The Shawerma Extra meal comes with a plate of pickles, tomeya and fries, with the tomeya having a great garlicky taste and smooth texture that worked well with almost everything on the table. The fries, too, had a unique homemade seasoning that gave them the push they needed.
As for the Shawerma itself, it was in a rectangular form cut into six pieces; what makes this sandwich unique, however, is the addition of mozzarella and mushroom – the ‘extra’ part – which works strangely well considering it’s almost unheard of here.
The large Shish Tawook meal came with fries, tomeya and pickles similar to the previous plates, but had the addition of bread covered with chopped arugula and a salsa-like sauce which gave the bread an extra punch.
Coming on three skewers and cut into five medium sized pieces, the well-spiced shish tawook is made of chicken breasts rather than thighs, which gave them more flavour. The only downside, however, is that it was a bit dry, though that was easily solved with the pickles and the toumeya.
The Half a chicken grilled, on the other hand came, with almost everything mentioned before, the bread, salad, mesabaha, tomeyah, pickles and fries (with the option to change it to rice if required).
Grilled on coal, the chicken was tender and had an earthy flavour to it with smoky aftertaste; it was cooked well yet remained juicy, while the restaurant’s in-house spices gave it a unique edge over traditional Egyptian grilled chicken.
Although the staff were either hard to find or overwhelmed by the amount of diners, in the end the experience was a great one for one simple reason: great food that left us stuffed and struggling to make our way to the exit.