In Dubai, people tend to define a ‘cheap eat’ as anything below Dh100. This may shock anyone who’s not from this part of the world, but when you’re grabbing a menu at what you thought was a nondescript pub, and it’s telling you that Fish and Chips is going to sting you Dh120 (NZD48 ish), it’s enough to make you want to get on the first flight home.
So while the rest of the city is seeing how many condiments they can add edible gold to, and everyone follows accordingly, if only to fill their Instagram feed, we’re going to continue searching the streets for things that won’t cost us half a week’s worth of salary.
Make no mistake, this doesn’t mean we’re out in search of food poisoning and the outlets that probably shouldn’t be in operation, but we won’t bandy around the franchises everyone already knows about either.
Yes, while the cheap eats abound in Deira – they’re not exclusively bound to that area. There are actually plenty around the likes of the Marina, JLT and Downtown too.
It’s hard to pin down a price point at what defines a cheap eat, but we reckon it’s anything under Dh35 (ish).
Here’s the best we’ve found:
Al Hallab, Mall of the Emirates (and elsewhere)
Lebanese / shawarma
We’ve tried a lot of shawarma in our time, and that means wading through plenty of thin-as-a-pencil wraps with a trickle of chicken and mayo expertly laid out inside. Not until now have we found one that’s just unceremoniously stuffed full of deliciously seasoned chunks of chicken, generously slathered dressing, plenty of fries and pickles. It might not look like much, but this is what we’re sure the first person to invent shawarma intended it to be like. Al Hallab does plenty of other Lebanese treats but they’re well-known in many circles for having some of the best shawarma in town.
One chicken shawarma: Dh36
La Mesa, Deira City Centre Area, Deira
This lively Deira haunt is always full of local Filipinos, so we can only assume that’s the highest compliment that can possibly be paid. Upon recommendation from our waiter, our first foray into Filipino food (and f-based alliteration apparently) came in the form of the glorious stuffed squid above. And, make no mistake – that’s one portion. Full to bursting with tomatoes, onions and capsicum, this fresh-off-the-boat squid will be served up to your table on a sizzling hot plate with a zingy sauce and some rice. It’s easily enough for two.
You’ll probably be serenaded by a group singalong from a neighbouring table at least twice during the night, which is actually quite the welcoming addition.
Stuffed squid: Dh35
Arab Island Restaurant, Deira – near the Avani Hotel
Arabian, Middle Eastern
Don’t let the mixed reviews, lack of image-based evidence on my part, and general unknown nature of this joint deter you: this was the best value feed we have ever had in Dubai. For starters, their Mandi Lamb is succulent, well-spiced and fricking huge. Served up at your table with a mountain of multi-coloured rice, soup and some bread – this is enough to feed at least three people. Yes, for Dh10 a head.
The steaming hot lamb is as tender as if Mum had been slow-cooking it all day, and the broth it’s cooked in is good enough to drink as soup afterwards. Even the rice is flavourful.
Sure, the glaring flourescent lights and canteen-style interior don’t exactly invite a passerby in, but just give it a chance. It’s well worth it.
Lamb Mandi + Rice + Soup = Dh30.
Flow, Emirates Towers, Trade Centre Area
Okay, we’re kind of breaking from tradition here because Flow isn’t that cheap and it’s not exactly a hole-in-the-wall. But I was genuinely so impressed with this place, and it’s reasonably-priced, yet trendy health food that I couldn’t not include it. Also, it was inspired by a quote from Sheikh Mohammed about inspiring youth – so if you want to cry foul, you’re actually a bad person.
Flow is all light and airy and full with pastel colours, so much so that it might be off-putting to anyone who cringes at anything twee, but it’s worth dealing with the decor for the fare. First of all: waffles. The ‘healthy waffles’ are made from wholeweat and oats, and served up with the most delicious lime-yoghurt dressing and blueberries and almonds to garnish. The egg babaghanoush is almost as good, in no smal
l part due to the lime and sumac hollandaise and expertly-poached egg.
And because we are gluttonous pigs, we followed with a slider or two (okay, three) but mostly because we got caught up in the colours game and needed the entire rainbow. The halloumi, butternut squash and mushroom slider is served on a charcoal bun and is a freaking masterpiece – as are the tandoori chicken on a curry bun and beef slider on a spinach bun.
And, last but not least, let me tell you about the best coffee in town. Being from New Zealand, we consider ourselves the self-crowned afficianados of
coffee, for no other reason than we like it the way we like it, and Flow whips up the best Flat White we’ve had outside of Wellington. Maybe even better than some of the joints on Cuba Street (just don’t tell them we said that. We’re sure there’s a pitchfork in it for us).
Wholeweat and oat waffles: Dh35
Slider (this takes us over our limit, but we were just being greedy): Dh30.