Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 13 July 2020

Driver's seat: Abu Dhabi cabbies reveal foodie hotspots in the capital

Taxi drivers know their city well, so we find out which restaurants across the capital they recommend

 Nicholas Nyondo goes to Pinky Food Restaurant for Ugandan fare. Antonie Robertson / The National
 Nicholas Nyondo goes to Pinky Food Restaurant for Ugandan fare. Antonie Robertson / The National

Ask a waitress at Pinky Food Restaurant in Abu Dhabi’s Tanker Mai district why so many taxi drivers from Uganda eat here, and she says: “Because it’s so African.”

Similarly, share lunch with Samir Grini at Tasty Zone Cafeteria in the capital’s Al Karama and, over his noodles, he will summarise the place’s appeal like so: “This is Nepali food, everything I like here is Nepali food.”

Abu Dhabi cabbies are in the driver’s seat all day, driving people where they need to go. But where to eat is one domain where the choice is theirs, and they often choose the food of home. Traversing the length of the city day and night also makes them the perfect people to unearth hidden gems.

Less sentimental considerations are that a restaurant should offer low-cost food and, if possible, be centrally located with easy access to parking spaces.

I set out with a plan to have a meal where our ferrymen eat, and learn more about their lives through the common interest of food. The city’s diversity of taxi drivers sometimes created language a barrier, but the greater obstacle was time: drivers work long days and tend to resist an unscheduled break.

I begin on a Sunday with a Pakistani driver who prefers to go by MK, and ask him to suggest a Pakistani restaurant for an affordable lunch.

“Go to Ibrahimi,” he says. “This is good.” What should I order? “Any chicken, tikka, kebab, any. All good.”

MK says that in the past he often visited the well-known Electra Street restaurant, but one Friday, he got a Dh500 parking ticket while waiting for his food to come. MK lives in Mussaffah and works 13 to 15 hours a day, typically starting at 4.30am. When I invite him to join me for lunch, he says he is too busy.

I order the chicken tikka and a roti. The waiter gets me started with a plate of vegetables – ­carrot, cucumber, lettuce, cabbage, red onion – alongside a cucumber-mint raita with green chilli. He also brings a bowl of hummus with two olives in a pool of oil at the centre.

Vertical image of food including chicken tikka at Al Ibrahami Restaurant in Abu Dhabi. Rob McKenzie for The National
Dh15 at Al Ibrahimi restaurant gets you a plate of veggies, a cucumber-mint raita, bowl of hummus, one-fourth of a chicken and bread. Photo: Rob McKenzie for The National

The tikka is enormous – the menu says it is a quarter of a chicken, but if that’s the case, the whole bird must have been colossal. Restaurant manager Adnan Butt says they use a 1,500-gram chicken, unlike the 1,200g bird used at other restaurants.

Garnished with slivers of red onion spiced with pomegranate powder, the chicken is crisp on the outside and moist inside. It is marinated with a mix of ginger, garlic, turmeric, yoghurt and red chilli powder. I roll everything into the roti and manage to eat almost all of it. This is definitely food to see you through a long shift. The bill, “with chair”, comes to Dh15.75.

The next day, I catch a ride with Nicholas Nyondo from Entebbe, Uganda. He recommends Pinky and agrees to join me for lunch. “I’ll give you 24 minutes,” he says, checking his dashboard clock. Pinky has a clubhouse feel: two drivers with shirts untucked briefly wrestle before heading back to their cabs.

Much on the menu is unfamiliar to me, and so I ask just for a mix of their best items. Nyondo chats with the waitress, Rammy, and she ­returns with a plate with mashed banana, sweet potato and posho (maize meal), and a small tureen of Egyptian tilapia on the side.

Easy parking access is essential. Rob McKenzie for The National
Easy parking access is essential. Rob McKenzie for The National

The food is heavy but ­calming, starchy and solid; it settles you. “This is Uganda food,” says Nyondo. “Apart from the fish, but the fish is almost similar because we are sharing the Nile.” I pick at the fleshy tilapia in its broth flavoured by tomato, onion, capsicum and coriander. My lunch partner, meanwhile, leaves behind only the white bones. He says he takes one big meal a day. Typically awake at 3.30am, he leaves his Mussaffah compound a half-hour later, works until about 9am when he takes a breakfast of tea and bread at a cafeteria, then finishes work at 4pm and has his big meal.

This life is a long way from the one Nyondo knew as a boy growing up by the shores of Lake Victoria. His parents fished for a living, but Uganda is not a wealthy country with a per capita annual income of $620 (Dh2,276) in 2018, and many work abroad to support their families. Nyondo has been in Abu Dhabi since August 2017. His wife and four children are back home – the oldest has recently finished ­university, graduating in economics, and the second is studying the same subject.

According to a January 5 tweet from the Integrated Transport Centre, 6,390 taxis were operating in Abu Dhabi last year, many of the drivers in the capital are from Nepal. For them, a favourite restaurant is Tasty Zone.

Chicken, chutney and rice at Tasty Zone Cafeteria in Abu Dhabi. Photo: Rob McKenzie for The National
Chicken, chutney and rice at Tasty Zone Cafeteria in Abu Dhabi. Photo: Rob McKenzie for The National

The driver who brings me here doesn’t have time to stop to sit down and eat. Inside are three tables with shared seating, there is no written menu, so I ask for momos, but these are sold out, so I order by pointing at someone else’s plate. On the walls are a Nepali flag, the UAE flag, a poster of Mount Everest and a mosaic of menu items.

The waiter quickly brings me rice and chicken mixed with potato, broccoli, tomato, onion and green chilli. Alongside this is a spicy chutney and a tasty lentil soup. The serving size seems small, but then the waiter comes along with refills and asks: “You like more veg?” The total cost of lunch, including chai: Dh12.

The restaurant’s manager, Suresh Rana Magar, says its attractions for drivers are good food, low prices and easy access to parking spaces, thanks to its side-street location. And there’s something else, too: “They are treated like family,” Magar says.

For Abu Dhabi’s taxi drivers, alongside the food of home comes the feeling of home. This is their comfort.

Updated: February 16, 2020 06:16 PM

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