Trying to get the directions to Al Ammor was like trying to get an answer out of a child with her mouth full of M&M’s.
Hi. Is this Al Ammor Restaurant? I’d like to know where you guys are located.
Garble, garble, garble. (blaring over the speakers in my car. thanks bluetooth.)
Um, where – are – you - located?
Garble, garble, garble.
Location? Street? W-h-e-r-e?!
The only person who could have given us intelligible directions in a language we understood was my uncle who’d highly recommended the place two weeks earlier. Uncle has this unbelievable innate sixth sense that leads him to hidden shacks serving up the best, authentic local fare no matter which city in the world he finds himself. And as luck has it, said uncle was far away in India that night, probably unearthing some five rupee pakoda place or a Punjabi roadside dhaba that most people would have driven past without so much as a sniff into what strange and scrumptious delights could be lurking within. When uncle gives a recommendation, one has no choice but to blindly follow.
Rads and I finally managed to get someone on the line who could speak a few words of English, and eventually gave us the basic “secundh lift” and “feerst raeet” that guided us right to Al Ammor. We were both lucky that we’d paid some attention in our high school Arabic class, else we would have totally driven past the الأمور signboard announcing this Egyptian hole-in-the-wall joint hidden away on a block that I’d never had occasion to visit before. To call it a restaurant would be an overstatement – it was a narrow corridor with three traditional bread ovens and a cash register, with the actual tables on the pavement outside facing the parking lot.
Heads turned as we walked up to the place. I’d like to believe it may have been because we were the most dazzling women spotted within miles around…but it may have well been because we were the only women for miles around. This was a place of the men, for the men, and by the men. This was the place where the hunter came back to slam fists with his other hunters after a long hard day of toiling in the elements, and his sole purpose was to order, eat his days worth of labor, and leave (often with a grunt).
All that said, an occasional lady or two, especially ones who had cool snappy cameras, couldn’t speak a word of Arabic, and were attempting to communicate their orders through some form of frenzied sign language over the menu, could be tolerated as a cute distraction. (On a separate note: Special thanks to my trusty Blackberry for letting me google the meanings of the menu items real time as we were trying to figure out what to order. Browser. Kushari. Search!)
Even though I was surrounded by big burly stranger men, eating at Al Ammor really connected with the ten-year old girl perched deep down inside me. Not in the McDonald’s clown and free-plastic-trinket-in-a-happy-meal sort of way, but more in the playful childishness of the ingredients that they used in their food. One bite of the veggie kushari - a mainstay of Egyptian street fare - prompted an image of a pouty girl with curls throwing a tantrum at a lunch buffet table: I want a bowl of that rice. And some macaroni. Oh and the spaghetti too. And chickpeas, LOTS of them. No, no, not separately...all in the same bowl! Yes, all mushed up together and can I have those crunchy fried onions on top? And some soft green lentils thrown in there too (actually, that would be mum shushing the curly haired girl and squishing in some hope of green and healthful protein in there, somewhere, anywhere.)
This is called true carbalicious comfort food. Or put differently, the arch enemy of Atkins. If I were depressed (or even if I weren’t depressed for that matter), I reckon that a bowl of kushari by my side would bring a smile to my teary face.
The feteer that followed, a thin-crepe like stuffed pastry filled with cheese and chicken, took me back a thousand years to that little schoolgirl who used to adore her bottle of spreadable Kraft cheese. Rich, creamy, salty Kraft cheese inside a wonderfully thin and crisp layer of dough, which distinctly reminded me of the Malaysian roti (though one major difference is that the feteer is baked in an oven, while a Malaysian roti is thrown into a greased skillet). In retrospect, the chicken was nothing more than a textural bonus – the saltiness of the cheese completely overpowered the chicken in taste, though having the thin shreds of chicken in the feteer lent itself to a more substantial bite than if it were just slathered with Kraft alone.
(You know, I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d have appreciated the use of Kraft cheese in any other restaurant. The reaction could have well been akin to the reaction I’d have if someone had served me mac n’ cheese with Cheese Whiz. It could be yummy, but I’d feel somewhat cheapened by the experience. Yet, something about Al Ammor, the ambiance - or the lack of it - totally justified the heavy use of the Kraft cheese bottles stacked up proudly near the cash register.)
As we were getting ready to leave, Rads suggested that I go inside the shop and photograph the feteer-making process up close. I should have a wall of frames to honor those friends who actually encourage my obnoxious public food photography obsession. And Rads, you would most certainly deserve a place on that wall. My request to photograph the feteer-bakers was met with a suspicious nod initially…but one ‘snap’ later, the three bakers in the shop caved into the attention and put on an entire feteer tossing show for us!
Al Ammor definitely makes my list of must-try ethnic eats in the city, with my next visit being sure to include a sample of one of their honey drizzled dessert feteers. Just don’t attempt to go to Al Ammor if you don’t have directions to the place. And don’t go alone if you’re a woman. And definitely don’t go there if you’re on Atkins.(Note about leftovers: The feteer was still a soul pleaser even after two days of slumber in our fridge. I ate it just the way I’d eat leftover pizza. Cold, and with my bare barbaric hands. I’m yet to try the leftover kushari, but I can’t imagine that it would be anything but awesome.)
Al Ammor Restaurant
Al Wuheida Street, Mamzar (Take the second right after crossing Century Mall to your left, and then the first left)