In case you think I’m this little weasel who wanders about the lone alleyways of Old Dubai in search of her grub, you’re probably…spot on. But there are times when I venture across the bridge because (a) I’m likely not going to fulfill a craving for Brazilian, Vietnamese or Cuban food in Karama; (b) I’m feeling filthy rich and outlandishly delusional – thereby making me splurge 60 dirhams on a sandwich; (c) I’m famished and trapped in the depths of Kinokuniya. When I finally manage to stumble out, I won't have a smidgen of patience left to brave the snakeathon of traffic between me and my beloved shawarma guy in Deira.
I would also like to believe that I have a duty to keep my taste buds updated with what’s going on on The Other Side. Just so I’m learning new flavours and not missing any good stuff, even if I have to pawn off my unworn bridal jewellery to buy that good stuff.
Café Habana was chosen for all of the reasons above, but also because I’ve had their famed cheese-smeared corn-on-the-cob in New York. As is the case with most things coated in sprinkles of soft crumbly cheese, it was a pretty transformative experience at the time and I wanted to relive the fantasy-on-a-cob that had played out for me on a bench outside Café Habana in New York.
The verdict on Dubai’s replica of the Grilled Corn Mexican Style? Pretty darn good. Good enough where it converted my cob-apathetic friend into a corny believer.
The cob was covered with rows of fleshy corn kernels that were smoky, charred, and smeared with creamy sweet mayo and crumbly cotija cheese. Sweet, smoky, creamy, cheesy and full of plump corn flavour that will leave all future magic corn cup experiences at the cinema feel totally unmagical forever more. In retrospect, I really should have taken out a second to squeeze the lime all over rather than inhaling the corn in one go.
If I had to compare Dubai’s corn to the one I’ve tried in New York, I vaguely remember NYC’s version covered in more cheese (if that’s possible. Of course it’s possible. It’s America.) I also remember the NYC cob being a more primal, unrefined experience wrapped in foil, gobbled up sitting on a bench, and definitely not prudishly chopped up into two sections as it is in Dubai. It seems that I also paid less than half price for the same but cheesier concoction in New York. I’m guessing that importing cotija cheese into Dubai, the charming wooden decor, the rents in Souk al Bahar, and the alcohol license jointly cost a bomb.
Let's hope they open up a branch in Satwa for the rest of us mortals.
When in a Cuban restaurant in Dubai, thou must order Guacamole.
This one came with sides of diced tomatoes and sour cream. Warm corn tortilla chips can never be a bad thing, though this purist guac might have had a better day on our table if it had been chunkier, heavier on the lime, more generous with fresh cilantro, and more home-style with everything mixed in rather than deconstructed,.
The Sincronizada Toluca with ground merguez sausage pounding the insides of a flour tortilla sounded like the most flavour-thumping, testosterone-loaded dish on the menu. Quite the contrary, the ground meat was begging for a heavy dose of fragrant herbs or spices or even just a fat swath of cheese if all else went missing in the kitchen. This Mexican sandwich does contain mozzarella according to the menu, but I might have given up too quickly on the dish to notice.
Here was my order of adobe-rubbed shrimp in tacos—summery fresh flavours with a vibrant crunch of fresh purple cabbage.
My happy circle of taco amigos was completed with the perfectly cooked and seasoned rice and black beans on the side. This is the sort of taco that reminds you of beaches in Miami that are dotted with perfectly sculpted and tanned models. Said models have probably never eaten anything as calorific as a taco but their annoying perfection prompts you to buy a mountain of them, load them up with sour cream like there's no tomorrow, and cry your unshapely-self silly in a mound of crunchy shrimpy comfort.
The rockstar of the meal was this baby.
The Cuban Sandwich, full of salty folds of corned beef and pastrami, Swiss cheese melting off the edges, smears of chipotle mayo and tangy pickles tucked into a Panini-pressed bread. This sandwich is so juicy, you won't need to order a drink.* This is the sort of sandwich that will make you burn with volcanic jealousy if it lands up on a friend’s plate and you got stuck with some yawningly-boring sausage in tortilla dish. I would know.
*Not real advice, but just one of those many lines in my ultra-weird-things-to-say collection that I can't help but inflict on my posts every now and then. Of course you need to order a drink. Unless you want to tip the sandwich over sideways, wring it like a wet cloth, and let the beefy juices dribble into a shot glass - a pretty awkward and unyummy thought to be sure, and one that deserves to be buried in the graveyard of morbidly unexecuteable thoughts.
The Cuban was salty, drippy with beefy juices, intensely savoury and strangely reminiscent of a childhood memory of a sweet-smoky burger that used to rock my ten-year old world: Hardees roast beef n’ cheddar.
I’m sorry Café Habana crew, I know a Hardees comparison probably sounds like the worst insult ever, but I really do mean it in the most positive of ways. And if it’s any consolation, Hardees’ burger didn’t hold up to childhood memories when I last tasted it. Plus they don’t have tiny pickles snuggled under the bun like your Cuban does. And your crusty perfectly-pressed roll can spank the pants off of their untoasted burger bun. Which makes you guys the front runners. CAFE HABANA - 1, HARDEES - 0.
I will admit that I nearly wept when I compared the price of this happy-salty-cow-in-a-roll to the NYC menu. I really need to stop doing price comparisons, I’m sure Café Habana can give me a million justifiable reasons why the price needs to be higher in Dubai. But it hurts nevertheless. It hurts that our compadres across the ocean can scarf down two of those sandwiches for the price of our one.
Now here is the interesting twist, and the one reason I may think twice before returning. The service was a bit odd, with an over-friendly server who was extraordinarily chatty and extraordinarily hard to flag down for an order, despite our being the only ones in the restaurant. Worse, my request for dessert was met with playful sarcasm: yes, for dessert we serve tortillas with meat…hahaha! Cute. But obnoxiously unfunny. Especially because the server never followed up her attempt at a joke with the real dessert selections, thereby shutting the door to a potential dessert order. Well dearest cute-but-unfunny server, we are acutely aware of the fact that the original branch serves up flan pastries, and that The National team from Abu Dhabi was offered très leches and banana foster. I want to believe that this has nothing to do with our not ordering booze (a notion sparked off by the Time Out review) or with the fact that I offered my honest feedback on the Toluca in response to the sever's question, or with sheer server laziness - but whatever it is, I find the dessert discrepancy very disturbing.
Bottom line, if you’re stranded in that massive labyrinth called Dubai Mall, cheesy corn and a juice-dripping Cubano would be a pretty decent pit stop during your shopping marathon. Carry your own tub of dessert in case you're not good enough to be offered any.
Blogging from my den in Deira with a loyal fourteen-dirham fresh-baked cheesy za’atar manousheh by my side. Over and out.
Souk Al Bahar, Near Dubai Mall
Phone: +971 (4) 422 2620