Whenever we decide we’re going to build a Shake Shack in a new city, the first thing I do is try to get a feel for the vibe of the city. I want to be able to answer the question, “If I lived here, what would I want to see on the menu?” That’s always the first step. I try to create a menu that I would like. I have to make myself happy first, and then we try to do it in the vision of Shake Shack.
Today, there’s 20 Shake Shack restaurants throughout the Middle East and I’ve been lucky enough to help open many of them. Usually the first day in all these countries, we have people on the ground to show us around, but I prefer to just walk around myself. I’d rather build my own connection to a city instead of having it filtered through someone else’s lens. Once I get a feel for a place, then building the menu is pretty easy.
Even though we’re in multiple cities in the Middle East now (Kuwait City, Beirut, Abu Dhabi, etc.), the city I get most excited about going back to is Dubai. Sure there are a lot of international chefs and restaurants there, but there are also a lot of local guys doing fantastic food. Food that to me, feels very much like comfort food that’s not too dissimilar from American comfort food. Every culture has a wrap or slow roasted meat in a sandwich served with creamy garlic sauce that tastes not too different from the way our food does.
Here are a few off-the-beaten-path places I love in Dubai:
1. Al Mallah
This is a Lebanese-inspired restaurant that serves the finest dharma shwarma I’ve ever had in my life. The best street food for $2 and it’s so mind-blowing that I usually get 3. The pickles are great, their garlic sauce is fantastic, but the magic is in the chicken. Slow roasted and stacked to order on very thin and sauced pita.
This place is the coolest thing. It’s a little seafood shack on the coast of Dubai where there’s a little fishing area. The guys fish in the seas, marinate it in a red curry paste, and when the sun goes down they open for business. You pick your own fish or shrimp, and they shallow fry it and put it in a curry sauce and dust it with an amazing spice mixture. They serve it with a chopped up cabbage, lemon wedges, and house-made parata bread. You eat it with your hands, sitting in the desert and looking out on the ocean. It’s almost like having a fish taco. If I’m in Dubai for even just half a day, I’m coming here to get this dish.
This place is a street food favorite of mine. They have this amazing bread with a couple different toppings called manakish. It’s like their version of a pizza topped with ground meats or cheese. I like it with Zaatar and butter and oh man is that something else. It’s like the great hot dog of NYC, but there are only a few places in Dubai worth the pilgrimage to find it and this place is one of them.
The best Indian / Pakistani food I’ve ever had. It’s open into the late hours of the evening, and it’s one of the most soulful street food spreads I’ve had. One of my favorite things is their dahl - it’s wonderfully spicy. Their kebabs are mutton and chicken, and they’re the best - grilled on the street corner over charcoal.
An amazing Egyptian restaurant on Jumeriah Beach Rd. Many Egyptian restaurants I visited in Dubai are super fish-centric.
Now, this is something I only discovered recently. They have a really fun sandwich in Dubai - the same way NYC has pizza and Philly has cheesesteaks, Dubai has “Chips Oman.” I’ve been coming to Dubai for over 5 years, and I only heard about this recently. I actually thought people were just pulling my leg when they told me about it. But we had a few Emiratis at Shake Shack who were very excited to try the burgers in America. I decided to ask them about chips oman and they just started laughing and wondering how an American guy like me heard about chips oman.
Oyoun al Reem gets credit for inventing the chips oman and they make it the best. It’s a very soft, naan-like bread with a cheese spread inside, a splash of hot sauce, and...crumbled up barbecue potato chips. You can actually find them all over the main roads too. You just pull up and tell them what you want. These sandwiches just opened up a whole other dimension of this city. Who doesn’t love a hot creamy, cheesy, sandwich with some crunch!
While Dubai is my favorite place to go back to in the Middle East, there’s a few standouts in other cities that I just have to mention.
Babel Restaurants In Beirut
They actually have three restaurants: a fish one down by the Zaitunah Bay called Babel Bay, which is fish centric, Babel Dbayeh and Babel Baher, which do meat. At Babel Dbayeh, I was nervous the first time I went because it looks like the kind of place you spend a lot of money at and the food isn’t great. Not true here.
The most inspiring dish I’ve had here was a mix of a crispy fried pita bread with layers of a slow roasted eggplant and thick yogurt on top. Depending on which Babel you go to, you can get it with grilled shrimp or grilled lamb. I didn’t think it could be good when I saw it, but the minute I tasted it I thought, “Goddammit it’s like nothing I’ve had and it’s perfect!” I wouldn’t change anything about this dish - it’s simply mindblowing. I spoke to the owner of the restaurant about it and he said that a lot of the food in the region is inspired by them. It’s their heritage that they’re sharing with the region.
Boubouffe In Beirut
These are considered to be the finest shwarma in all of Beirut. The one at Boubouffe is extra special. They’re actually grilling the meat in front of charcoal and wood, slowly turning it to make sure it’s perfect every day.
Souk Al-Mubarakiya In Kuwait City
The old souk in Kuwait city has some of the best local food in the area. There’s a ton of different food stalls there - one with a guy making a breakfast sandwich with charcoal grilled chicken livers in a warm soft thin bread with sauce. It’s a tiny little place that you’d walk by if you didn’t know to look for it. They have charcoal and hardwood burning in a tiny clay oven and you see the meat cooked with a char on the outside, pink in the middle and perfectly juicy.
There’s another stall nearby with a guy doing whole roasted fish that’s caught from the gulf that day. He stuffs it with herbs and citrus, bakes it slowly, and serves it with a warm soft bread.
Turkey Central In Doha
This place is very much off-the-beaten-path. It’s on the 2nd floor of a strip mall in the middle of the desert, but it’s always packed. You have to know where to go to find it, but you’ll be happy you did. The meal starts with tons of different accoutrements and some incredible hummus and lebna (a soft cheese that’s like a Greek yogurt). I also love to get the grilled meats there that are super flavorful, moist, and fun as the marinades are so interesting. They use lots of pomegranate syrup for their marinade and grill paired from some amazing bread and pickles.
Local Spots In Istanbul
What I love best about the delicious food of Istanbul is there are so many different ranges and experiences to be had in the cuisine. From superb street food, to more refined and elevated takes on classic Turkish cooking, which is what you'll find at Konyali.
Right around the legendary Spice Market in Istanbul, I found some incredible restaurants and cafes, including one that serves a type of baklava stuffed with some of the most amazing pistachios I've ever seen and tasted.
One of the easiest things to find in Istanbul - a classic Turkish breakfast with tea and a simit. I embellished mine with Aleppo pepper and dry thyme, which are very common table condiments in Istanbul.
These can be found through the Taksim at night. On a No Reservations episode, Bourdain sees this and says it’s crazy how this guy is selling mussels on the street. But they’re so delicious. They cook the mussel just till they open and stuff it with rice. They keep it on the street, you order and they rip the top shell off, and squeeze a handful of lemon in it. It’s probably the least safe thing you can eat off the street. I was there with my Shack colleagues and everyone was laughing at me telling me I was going to get sick. But they were just too good. And for the record, I did not get sick.
You might wonder why Shake Shack fits into all these countries in the Middle East, but hopefully now you can see how it actually makes a ton of sense. Every place has their own kind of comfort food that makes everyone completely able to relate to a grilled patty on a bun.
All photos by Mark Rosati, unless otherwise noted
Cover photo by Panoramas