We visit the restaurants that fuel the city's cab drivers
There are 17,278 registered RTA taxi drivers in Dubai. That’s 17,278 people dedicated (some more than others, admittedly) to keeping the city moving, ferrying passengers to and fro, and running the 14-lane gauntlet that is Sheikh Zayed Road day in, day out.
Most of the city’s cabbies hail from Pakistan (35 per cent) and India (25 per cent), as well as Bangladesh, Nepal, Ethiopia and Sudan. Such colourful cultural diversity is catered for by the city’s equally diverse restaurant scene, which was enough of a reason for me to spend several lunch hours hopping into a cab and joining whoever picked me up for a bite to eat.
Adukkala Restaurant I was alerted to the whereabouts of this restaurant by a Keralan colleague, who assured me it was a favourite among taxi drivers who hail from this southern Indian state (there’s a high chance that an Indian taxi driver will come from Kerala). Since I’m in the area anyway, I take his word for it and drop by to find the restaurant devoid of customers at noon.
‘Do taxi drivers come here for lunch?’ I ask the manager, a thick-set man with an equally thick moustache. ‘Yes!’ he says with a laugh. ‘Many come here for lunch!’ I look around to double check and am disappointed that the restaurant is still empty. ‘Ha!’ he says, eyeing my expression, ‘they come later!’
I take a table next to a mural depicting snapshots of what must be home for many customers – house boats, elephants and colourfully clad holy men. The manager issues me a glass of red liquid that he implores me to drink. It’s rasam, a hot drink spiced with dried chillis, coriander and mint leaves, and it’s exceptionally good – much like liquid curry. I’m then served a glass of green liquid, aka ‘pulissery’ – a yoghurt-based drink flavoured with turmeric and yet more dried chillis. As I drain the last drops I look up to see a flurry of red ties walk through the door, one of which is marched over by the manager to prove that his restaurant is indeed a favourite with Keralan cabbies.
Rajesh introduces himself. He’s been in Dubai for six years and eats at Adukkala three times a day, every day. ‘So you’ve eaten every meal here for the past six years?’ I ask incredulously. ‘Yes,’ replies Rajesh with a smile. ‘No!’ rebukes the manager, ‘we’ve only been open for a year and a half.’ ‘Yes,’ nods Rajesh, still smiling.
I love thali, so I’m more than happy when I’m confronted with two trays – one laden with kotari bowls, each full of curry, the other lined with a banana leaf and a mound of motta (fat) rice, a fried sardine, lemon pickle and coconut chutney.
Rajesh talks me through each of the curries, from the sambar to the thoran (daal and coconut), yam and black chenna and koota curry, explaining in what order and how to eat them. There are no spoons or forks at Adukkala, so I’m forced to fumble through each offering with my right hand – a skill that I begin to master towards the end of the meal, although I still manage to make a wonderful mess (the trick, apparently, is pushing the rice-curry mix into your mouth with your thumb).
I’m not sure whether it’s because I’m dining with Keralans or simply because the food is fantastic, but I daresay this is the best thali I’ve eaten in Dubai. Open daily 6am-1am. Unlicensed. Cash only. Opposite Lamcy Plaza, Oud Metha (04 334 4043).
1x Parcel pothichor Dhs10 TotalDhs10 Karachi Darbar Sawa is looking at me suspiciously. So suspiciously, in fact, he pulls over and stops the car just minutes after picking myself and my photographer up. ‘Restaurant?’ he says. ‘Which restaurant?’ Again, I explain I want him to take me to his favourite restaurant – it doesn’t matter where, I just want to have lunch. With him, if he’s hungry. ‘My favourite restaurant?’ repeats Sawa, as confused as ever. ‘Okay,’ he says with a shrug. ‘Why not?’ And with that, I find myself hurtling down Sheikh Zayed Road towards Karachi Dabar in Al Qusais.
As we drive, I explain what I’m doing and Sawa begins to let his guard down. I find out he’s from Lahore and has been in Dubai for three years. He eats at Karachi Darbar every day because a) ‘It’s very a good restaurant’ and b) ‘I live near there.’ Sawa explains how the chain is very famous in Pakistan – there are 33 in the region. I’m taken aback by his statistics (how accurate they are, I’m unsure) and begin to see that he, like many Pakistani men in Dubai, has an active interest in the restaurant business.
He speculates that, with so many Pakistani expats in Dubai, there’s money to be made by setting up a restaurant, but he laments that it’s also an expensive industry to get into. Karachi Darbar isn’t just popular with Pakistanis, says Sawa, but also Bangladeshis and northern Indians. Sure enough, the restaurant houses a handful of cabbies scooping up biryani with generously sized naan.
Sawa politely declines my offer of lunch, explaining it’s too early.
‘I eat at 2pm. I start my shift at 5am, breakfast at 10am and lunch at 2pm.’ And with that, he recommends the biryani and leaves us to it. As we sit in the canteen-style dining area, a waiter in a striking yellow uniform presents me with raita and salad (standard issue at all Pakistani restaurants, though I’m charged Dhs4 for the pleasure). The raita, flavoured with coriander and cumin, cools my palate in preparation for the spicy Peshwari chicken that arrives sizzling in a small wok. I also order the dry ginger chicken, which is less spicy but no less flavourful, and what proves to be a mountain of biryani. I’ve over-ordered, yes, but the food is so much fun I nearly finish it. Nearly. Open daily 4.30am-1am. Unlicensed. Cash only. Al Nahda, Al Qusais (04 258 0443).
1x Peshwari chicken Dhs15 1x Chicken pepper fry Dhs16 1x Chicken biryani Dhs11 1x Raita yoghurt Dhs2 1x Salad Dhs2 TotalDhs46 New Sarhad Darbar Explaining to Mohammed what I’m up to isn’t nearly as difficult as it was with Sawa a day earlier. It’s as if he takes passengers to his favourite restaurants every day. ‘Karachi Darbar?’ he suggests. No, no, I’d already been – where else? ‘I know a place,’ he assures me. ‘It’s very popular with Pakistani taxi drivers – especially for breakfast.’
Sadly, it’s too late for breakfast, so I’ll have to come back for dishes such as aloo paratha, keema, halwa puri (a traditional Pakistani breakfast of sweet halwa, spicy chickpeas and crunchy puri bread) another time. Luckily, New Sarhad Darbar in Al Barsha, a stone’s throw from Mall of the Emirates, looks to be pretty popular at lunchtime too. Strangely enough, we’re greeted by a dwarf dressed as a maharaja, yet none of the cabbies seem at all fazed by this, so I get on with the business of ordering my lunch.
Mohammed recommendsthe biryani, but seeing as I still feel full from the previous day’s exploits, I go with the waiter’s recommendation of chicken achari – a wonderfully spicy and tangy concoction, prickling with lemon and pickled with mustard oil, fenugreek seeds, cumin and fennel, which I mop up enthusiastically with my sizeable naan and wash down with a sweet, milky cup of chai.
I finish with a bead on my brow, and look up to see the fantastically attired doorman welcoming yet more taxi drivers. The restaurant is becoming boisterously busy and it’s time for me to get the bill and make my way back to the office – an easy enough endeavour, because finding a taxi won’t be a problem. Open daily 6am-midnight. Cash only, Unlicensed. Al Barsha, near Mall of the Emirates (04 395 0194)