Fast food in Arabia

Qatar hosts excellent options for prompt, inexpensive and flavorful dining. Grills bundle slowly broiled shavings of chicken and beef wrapped in flatbread with vegetables and garlic paste for two dollars. Dropping 30 cents in a bakery yields stacks of fresh bread. Barbar satisfies hundreds of customers daily, under the tagline “The Lebanese Fast Food,” at the C-Ring and Salwa Road intersection in Doha, known by U.S. expatriates as “cholesterol corner.”

U.S fast food chains suffer on cholesterol corner, where there’s little interest in processed value meals based on canned, smoked, dried and frozen ingredients packed with preservatives. A fading Taco Bell buckled a couple years ago, replaced by a bustling Coffee Beanery. The Arby’s restaurant welcomes “maybe 60 patrons” each day, according to an evening manager.

Laila and I walked inside Barbar during a warm Wednesday evening. Two men inside chatted in Egyptian Arabic, while chewing on chicken wings. As usual, a steady stream of patronage filed toward the take-away counter. Vehicles pulled up outside; drivers honked for service.

We sat next to a brick bread oven. Opposing flames lit the cavity as a Nepali slid in a dozen pieces of flattened, circular dough using a thick wooden plank. After a few minutes, he removed them, using a long-handled wooden peel, four at a time. He dropped each batch of bread – puffed up like little beige balloons – inside an insulated box lined with aluminum foil.

At 8:40 p.m., after admiring wall-mounted photographs of Lebanon’s cityscapes and castles, we ordered a series of fast foods from an Egyptian server.

Laila asked for falafel first, thereby declaring her evening craving. The Middle Eastern cuisine is a combination of chickpeas, green beans and spices mashed into a batter. Doughnut-shaped pieces are fried, and then sprinkled with sesame seeds. A crusty outside gives way to a mushy inside.

Next, Laila ordered fresh wine leaves. The dish is prepared by rolling rice and finely chopped vegetables in wet grape leaves. The wraps are soaked in lemon juice while cooking them at a low heat for hours. She loves them, but it’s a bitter bite that I cannot also appreciate.

I interjected with a couple favorites: cheese and thyme manakish, flat bread that drips with olive oil; kibeh, ground steak covered in bulgur and then fried; and a mixed grill of chicken and beef kebabs. We agreed on a bowl of hummus, a blend of chickpeas, sesame seed paste, olive oil, garlic and lemon. Laila closed our order with a Diet Coke and Diet 7-Up, but then hailed the server to add spicy chicken wings too. The nearby table had tempted her taste buds.

At 8:43 p.m., our server rushed out six pieces of falafel, along with tomatoes, parsley, pickled chili peppers and sesame sauce. Two minutes later, he brought the kibeh, vine leaves and a basket of bread. Everything followed over the next few minutes – garnished with fresh and pickled vegetables and french-fried potatoes. Two ramekins contained a dollop of white, creamy garlic for extra flavor.

Barbar’s dining area started filling up with Indian and Arab patrons after 9 p.m., as well as a re-enforcement of Nepali and Filipino servers. Businessmen balanced firm formalities with impatient appetites. Fathers ate with an attentive eye on their sons. Friends tried to keep food in their mouths while laughing. The only utensils: bread and hands; nothing required a knife.

Laila and I felt stuffed, despite plenty of leftover food. I was so tired that I dipped my fingers inside a garlic-filled ramekin, mistaking it for my crumbled tissue.

Our bill arrived: $31. That seemed high, more than we remembered paying in the past. Barbar’s prices must have been affected by rising food costs in the country, as reported by the Qatar Statistics Authority. However, we ordered enough food for five stomachs – not two.

Barbar was bursting with business by 9:15 p.m. Pedestrians roamed the parking lot, while drivers competed for opened stalls. We wobbled to our car, passing by Coffee Beanery, where every outdoor table was taken.

Before driving off, we peeked inside Arby’s. Nobody.

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