DUBAI // The smell of exotic spices and crackling fish floating on a salty sea breeze lets first-timers know they have reached the tiny eatery that boasts the emirate's freshest seafood.
Many drive past the little hut that houses Bu Qtair, doubling back when they see dry-docked dhows behind which diners are perched on plastic stools on a sandy stretch behind Jumeirah Beach Road.
Another clue is the line of cars parked alongside belonging to customers eager to take home piping hot orders.
"There is no place like this in all of Dubai," said Ali Al Amri, an Emirati businessman who often waits for more than an hour in his car along with his teenage sons for their regular order of fried pomfret, chilli prawns and marinated hammour.
"It's nothing to look at but my family has never been disappointed. We can never replicate these flavours at home."
A Sri Lankan employee introduced Mr Al Amri to the restaurant five years ago and he has been a regular ever since.
He can be found among the diners when accompanied by friends and mostly takes the food home because it is convenient for his family.
There are several quirky details about Bu Qtair that customers enjoy.
It operates without a fixed menu because it changes daily based on the fish caught that day.
There is no number to call ahead to place a takeaway order.
The restaurant opens after 7pm when customers crowd into a small concrete cabin outside of which hangs a blue and white sign that simply reads Bu Qtair Cafeteria, in English and Arabic.
Customers point out their choice from a large steel tray packed with fish and smeared in a red masala paste.
The fish vary from pomfret, kingfish and hammour to sardines and sherri.
The busy server briskly asks, "Half a kg? One kg? How much prawns?" The fish and prawns are slapped into a smaller tray and tagged with the customer's name and mobile number.
That is when the 45-minute wait begins, as the fish is fried by any of the four chefs busy at the rear of the cabin.
A meal for two, including healthy servings of fish, prawns, parotha, rice, fish curry and bottled water costs about Dh100.
On most days about 50 people sit at the white plastic tables with another 30 waiting to be seated.
Green and red lights twinkle from a small neem tree under which the servers and cleaners gather, poised to clear any table that is vacated.
This sandy stretch is illuminated by the yellow glow of street lamps from across the road that light up the food on the tables.
Rice, chewy parotha (flat bread) and a red spicy curry can be ordered as soon as a table is secured.
The restaurant is run by a family from the southern Indian state of Kerala, says Abdul Karim, the owner's brother who supervises operations. Twenty years ago, the restaurant opened on Umm Suqeim beach. It was moved to its current spot a decade ago.
"My brother worked as a cook in an Arab's house before he opened his own restaurant," said Mr Karim, 45, better known as Bava. He wears a spotless white shirt and trousers, yells instructions to servers, herds diners toward their table and checks if they want to add to their order.
"We started very small on the beach: fishermen ate here, then the tourists started coming. And it hasn't stopped since then. We buy fish the same morning," said Mr Karim.
"That's why the food tastes good, because it is fresh, everything is fresh from our sea."
The favourite dish at Bu Qtair is a contest between fried prawns and crunchy silver-black pomfret.
But it is the secret family recipe for a red-orange masala marinade that makes the food special. Red chillies, coriander and turmeric are the base ingredients but this is all that Mr Karim will reveal.
“The freshest of fresh fishes and our secret, spicy masala is why people keep coming back,” he said. “Only my older brother knows the full recipe; even our chefs don’t know exactly what is in it.”
The promise of authentic food draws the New Zealand expatriate Rosie Estall to this no-frills eatery.
“The food is absolutely delicious; everything is so fresh,” said Mrs Estall, a schoolteacher who has lived in Dubai for two years and discovered the restaurant only recently.
She enjoys the fried pomfret and the prawns.
“It’s so different because in Dubai you get used to five-star hotels. So it’s fun to sit down and wait until the fish you have chosen gets ready. This is grassroot level,” she said. “The best thing is knowing the fish is fresh and caught locally.”
While many long-time residents have never heard of the restaurant, Babasab Birajdar, an Indian national who works as a concierge with a leading hotel, said visitors often ask him for directions to it.
“People who have lived here for years don’t know this place, but it’s amazing how many tourists ask about it,” said Mr Birajdar, a frequent diner.
“They hear from people who have visited that it’s the best fish place in Dubai with an unbeatable price.”
His top dish? “The crunchy pomfret, that’s my favourite.”
Driving down Jumeirah Beach Road with the beach on your right, take a right at Chalet Restaurant. Take another right with the beach on your left, keep going on the back road until you spot the Bu Qtair signboard tucked behind a couple of old dhows.
Next week, get a taste of South Korea at a Bur Dubai restaurant