Special Ostadi restaurant in Meena Bazaar. (Photo: Paul Thuysbaert)
When Dubai’s locals and expats want to please their palates without blowing their budgets, they head for the cheap but delicious fare that’s served up on the backstreets. Dubai’s gritty neighborhoods are teeming with ethnic eateries that reflect the United Arab Emirates’ cultural pastiche. So when the sun goes down and neon lights turn up, head for these hot spots for your pick of global grub, including the best Arabic food this side of Beirut.
Dusty, sun-drenched Deira, Dubai’s original downtown, is cheap-eats central for locals. Al Muteena Street and Al Muraqqabat Road in Old Dubai are lined with Iraqi kebab joints, Persian eateries and Lebanese bakeries. Savor tangy lamb shawarma at 35-year-old Syrian restaurant Aroos Damascus (on the corner of Al Muraqqabat Road and Al Jazira Street), open till the wee hours; rich mutton Peshawari kadai curry and flaky paratha at Pakistani favorite Karachi Darbar (Al Muteena Street); and the legendary mansaf, a Bedouin rice dish of lamb cooked in yogurt, at the Jordanian-Palestinian institution Qwaider Al Nabulsi (Al Muraqqabat Street).
The city’s Little India, the waterfront souk (market) quarter of Meena Bazaar, is home to some of Dubai’s cheapest eats. Indian food aficionados will appreciate the array of cuisines, from Mughlai to Hyderabadi. But it’s a Persian eatery with almost mythical status that’s a magnet for street-food enthusiasts. Opened in 1978, Special Ostadi (Al Musallah Road) serves up south Iranian specialties, including succulent kebabs.
Squeezed between Sheikh Zayed Road’s towering skyscrapers and Jumeirah’s beachside suburbs, Satwa has a split personality. By day, chickens scratch sleepy, sand-swept streets. Come midnight, traffic is gridlocked on the neon-lit main drag, and sidewalks heave with late-night eaters here for everything from Afghani hole-in-the-wall bakeries to the fruit shakes at Sea Shell Café. Avoid the overrated Ravi’s and stuff yourself silly with garlicky chicken shawarma under the bright lights of Lebanese eatery Al Mallah (2nd of December St.).
If Little India had a hyperactive sibling, it would be cosmopolitan Karama. In its bustling souk and busy streets, the neighborhood’s expat residents — from India, Iran and beyond — mingle, gossip and nosh on Dubai’s cheapest eats. While you can sample everything from Filipino to Parsi food here, stick to the local specialty: chaat, India’s famous deep-fried snacks. Join the queues at Chaat Bazaar Karama and order an assortment of vada pav (mashed potato patties) and bhaji (vegetable fritters). Here for lunch? Work up an appetite on a brisk walk to nearby Za’abeel Park, where you can munch in the sun.
Balance the spice with something sweet from one of Dubai’s ubiquitous Arabic bakeries. At Al Reef Lebanese Bakery (in Karama, opposite the post office), trays laden with honey-soaked baklava (nut-filled layered phyllo pastries), crunchy borma (pistachio-filled rolls) and sticky namoura (semolina and coconut slices soaked in orange blossom syrup) sit on counters crammed with awama (fried dough balls), ma’amoul (filled shortbread pastries) and barazek (sesame-coated cookies) — all for as little as $1 apiece.