The Weirdest Meal You Never Ordered – Brunch in Abu Dhabi 

It was nice to be one of those people for a change. You know the ones. They come out around 12 pm every Friday. Standing by the street with one arm raised toward the sky. Its almost as if in triumph, like they know the victory to come. They are adorned in bright colors and decadent jewelry, to match the feast in which they are preparing.

They are, of course, the brunch goers. Or for the sake of shear mummery, the Brunchians. And this Friday, we were one of them.

With a 7-month-old infant, any excursion out into the world is an accomplishment worth celebrating. Sitting still and allowing us to eat more than 5 bites of our dinner is an accomplishment worth celebrating. This day, however… we had booked the nanny.

Brunchians unite!

Brunches in Abu Dhabi vary in duration and cuisine but they all have one thing in common. IMG_9669Food. And lots of it. Some specialize in seafood, some Mexican, some are meat lovers’ dreams and veggie lovers’ nightmares. Many offer a wide mix. And mix is what people do.

They are a lot like a buffet, except these tend to have a chef standing there for every food. Lobster tail… YOU get a chef! Sushi station… YOU get a chef! Ice cream dipped in nitrous… YOU GET A CHEF!

It’s a lot like Oprah (minus the cars).

What is fascinating is how all of those things are combined in one meal… and on one plate usually. People throw out any regard for what does or does not mix to satisfy their numerous and decadent cravings.

Jerry Seinfeld describes this eclectic buffet mentality perfectly in a recent comedy set on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

The momentary result of such decadence is a very content palate. The final result of willingly sacrificing your digestive system to such vast arrays of flavors might not be so pleasant. But in the end, sometimes you have to throw it all on the plate and simply join the Brunchians.




Dry Shoulders and Warm Hearts: Day 3 in Vietnam 

The rain fell in droves and we had not yet purchased our conical hats. The rain we expected. This was ‘Nam. I’ve seen Forest Gump. However, the fact that we had lasted 4 days without buying the prototypical hats worn by Vietnamese rice farmers?

 That was shocking. 

We had gone in search of a lunch spot, to satisfy both our hunger and our need to be out of the rain. When we saw the small house with its tiny table and chain link fence for a wall we almost walked by – thankfully, for our heads and our hearts, we didn’t. 

The “Restaurant” had two options: 

1) Chicken and Rice

2) Noodles and Pork

The venerable old woman got up from her bed inside her house, where she was watching television on a set bought in the 60’s, and greeted us warmly. Despite the lack of options it still took us a moment to decide what we would have. Should we get two chicken and one pork, or one chicken and two pork? Maybe they should have just had one item on the menu. 

When our host delivered the plates  we carved into them, marveling at the flavor and at our humble surroundings. Only in a small village like Hoi An, could you experience such contrast. We soaked it in as we sat in our small plastic red chairs. 

During our meal, the man of the house had stayed put in his chair mere feet away, carefully guarding their table of wares and… hats!!!

As the rain was still falling, we jumped at the chance to retain our dryness as well as a keepsake from such an experience. Of course, we purchased the largest hat he had. If not for the novelty than simply to keep our shoulders dry. In the end, we walked away with a dry upper torso and an extremely warm feeling, thanks in full to the unlikely restaurant and its two gracious hosts. 

Surrounded by Foreigners: Day 2 in Vietnam

It was a small table. It felt even smaller because the groups on our right and left were foreign to us. The group on our right consisted of three french women. The group on our left consisted of an irishman, a  danish girl, and a german. It could have been the start of a joke, but instead, it was simply the start of our meal on this second day in Vietnam. 

Down a dark alley and up four flights of stairs we walked through the kitchen and sat down in the waiting area as they prepared a table for us. I was greeted by a friendly chicken. I sat down on the waiting bench, and she nipped at my ankles. I hoped she wasn’t about to become my dinner but I accepted her fate, if only because she would become something far tastier. 

They sat us down between the two parties at a table just wide enough to hold our drinks. The food came, as did the conversation, and the three groups became one as night two of our SE Asia baby adventure continued. Only in such an environment can strangers from across the globe come together peacefully and enjoy each other’s company. The biggest unifier was the six-month-old baby girl who stared and smiled her way joyously into the hearts of patrons and servers alike. 

As we left the small restaurant on the roof of a neglected apartment building, we realized, through conversation and one social infant, that 9 people had sat down together as foreigners but walked away as friends. 

Brought to Tears: Day 1 in Vietnam

The waiter set down two plates in front of us. One was Sichuan Beef. One was a seafood stir fry. 

We had just arrived to our AirBnB 20 minutes earlier. One bite of my meal and I had to sit back in disbelief. This one bite held more flavor than I had ever experienced. It was as if my palate had laid dormant for 30 years of my life, as if my tongue had been living a half life. And suddenly, they were awoken. I was confused, overwhelmed, inundated with emotions that all flowed forth in a single tear that slowly slid down my cheek. 

Sound corny?

It felt corny. Sitting in a Vietnamese cafe crying… because of tasty noodles. But it didn’t change the fact that I was completely disarmed. Great food had stripped me of everything. 

Up a back staircase of building B, in a crowded apartment building that surrounded a motorbike parking lot, sat an unassuming gem of a restaurant named Loft Cafe. Two young servers, named Hong and Tom, gave us a masterpiece of a meal. 

It didn’t make sense. This was only day one, I thought. I’m not going to be able to handle this trip. And yet, in that moment, the only way I could express myself was in the local language. 

“Toi Ruh Fuey”, Tom helped me to say. Which translates…

 I am happy. 

VIP in the Kingdom’s Kitchen

For many expats, visiting Saudi Arabia is not on their to do list. For this expat, it’s on my tah-done list… Sort of.

Ask anyone around Abu Dhabi where Saudi Arabia is and they’ll look at you funny. If you don’t know the location of UAE’s neighbor to the west then you need a geography lesson.

Condescension aside, Saudi Arabia is close. Despite the proximity, many foreigners living in the Middle East have never been there. Due to its stringent visa requirements and so forth, Saudi is one tough nut to crack. But thankfully, if you live in the UAE you can experience some of what Saudi has to offer without ever passing its border.

It’s cuisine.

At two locations around Abu Dhabi you can recline on Persian carpets at Saudi Cuisine VIP. SCV serves up authentic and delicious Saudi fare in an rugged Middle Eastern atmosphere. Woven tapestries line the adobe walls as you deeply dig your five fingers into a shared dish of Khabsa – Saudi Arabia’s most popular dish, featuring grilled meats, long rice, and assorted roast nuts and raisins. Feel free to flavor any part of your meal with side dishes of lentil soup or creamy laban yogurt. Savouring each bite is made easier as you have to rest your elbows on the neighbouring cushions.

The warm tones and rich aromas create an atmosphere built for relaxation.

So whether you are in the mood for Saudi Arabian or have simply never tried, but you can’t quite get across the border, recline the night away at your nearest Saudi Cuisine VIP.

Bread’er Beware – Substitutions Necessary

Not a week after leaving the sunny east coast of the United States and I’m already craving the food I left behind.

When I arrived in Abu Dhabi, I saw a friend of mine, who also happened to be from Philadelphia, and the first question he asked was, “Did you have a Wawa hoagie?” The second question… “Can you describe it for us?”

If you’re not from the Eastern Pennsylvania/New Jersey area you invariably have no clue what I am talking about. I’m sorry for your loss.

The flaky crust, the moist innards, the hardy bite of an Amoroso roll is more than most people can stand. It’s more of a sitting sandwich anyway. The bread is what makes Philly sandwiches so famous. Whether it is Primo’s, Sarcone’s, Jim’s, Pat’s, Geno’s, DaLessandro’s, or your local delicatessen, we sure do love our foot-longs.

I’ve spent near two years searching for its equivalent over here in the United Arab Emirates. Despite seeing a “Philly Cheese Steak” on nearly every menu, the closest thing to the real Philly is from Hardee’s. Hardee’s. Hardee’s.

But there is still some joy in Mudville, for not all have struck out.

Though not an Amoroso roll, I did find a suitable substitute. On the underside of the World Trade Center mall in Abu Dhabi, at the Bagel Factory, there exists a cure for my tongue’s homesickness.

The taste alone is worth the trip.

The decor?

Well, that just adds to the flavor.

Go Birds!

Tri-State Vacation, Part II: Mmmmm… a Roll

There are many blessings in this world… and Wawa hoagies are most certainly one of them.

The Macy’s Christmas Holiday Light Show is a staple of the Philadelphia holiday season. It is held in Macy’s Department store located next to City Hall on the southeast corner of Market and Broad streets. Every year thousands of spirit seekers include the light show on their seasonal “get-in-the-spirit” list, along with other holiday favorites like bake cookies, sing Christmas carols, and avoid over consumption of Titi Myrna’s Coquito.

The show’s backdrop is a 6-story high wall that is sheathed in a black curtain, intricately woven with tiny lights. IMG_1956On the first floor, if you walk past the impressive 10-foot tall bronze statue of an eagle you will find an even more impressive organ that adorns the foundation of this iconic holiday favorite.

My wife and I had made a list of things we would venture out to see when we came home to Philadelphia from Abu Dhabi and Macy’s light show was most definitely at the top. But right below it on the list, labeled Philly To Do, were two words – Wawa Hoagie. If you are not from the Philadelphia area these two words are most likely foreign, but if you have had the privilege than your mouth is watering at this very moment… mine certainly is.

Hoagies – or as my friend from Portugal pronounces them, Ohgheez – are exquisite creations. Sturdier and more balanced than a sub, and not so roughneck as a grinder, hoagies represent all that is good and flavorful in this world. If done right, each bite will caress every part of your palate, savory to sweet. If done wrong, you will find yourself as Job did, agonizing over life’s deepest meaning. On this day however, we did not find ourselves sitting in the ashes of despair. We found heaven in a flaky, tender, and eye-rollingly pleasant hoagie.

We typed in our order in Wawa’s electronic kiosks that allowed us the convenience of picking our toppings and sandwich style. Shorti* roll. Next. Italian. Next. Provolone. Next. Lettuce-onion-tomato-hot peppers-sweet peppers-pickles. Next. Mayonnaise-oil-salt-pepper-oregano. Finish. And we were off to Macy’s, sandwiches in hand.

As it is every holiday season, the department store was packed from lobby to ceiling. Those families who showed up early enough to the hourly show were sprawled across the ground floor looking up unhindered at the display, while the rest of us had to cram ourselves on the remaining floors where the balconies overlooked the center area. It was so crowded that we had to make our way to the 3rd floor just to find space. And even then, the only wawa hoagieavailable view was just behind a rack of pink push-up bras. But our minds were still too focused on our sandwiches to have noticed any of our surroundings.

The light show began and the faces of the children in front of us lit up. As they sat on their fathers’ shoulders they were enthralled by the story of the Nutcracker and Rudolph and Frosty unfolding before them. Janae and I also had faces of wonder and joy, but it was not because of the lights, albeit their splendor. Our joy stemmed from a greater power, a greater overwhelming fulfillment. The holiday season was ablaze with hope and good tidings. It was not just our faces that trembled with excitement, but our entire bodies. ‘Twas the season of MIRACLES…

For we had just taken our first bite.

*Wawa is a popular convenience store on th east coast of the United States. They sell sandwiches and hoagies of different sizes. Hoagie rolls are classified by length as follows: 4 inch – Junior, 6 inch – Shorti, and 12-inch – Classic. There is also a 2-foot variety but so daunting is that task no name would be appropriate. But whichever the length, many believe, as do I, that the full flavor and force of a Wawa’s hoagie, or any Philadelphia hoagie, stems from its bread – its delicious, sumptuous, earth-shattering bread**.

**Many studies have been done to prove that Philadelphia’s breads actually contain actual and extraordinary earth-shattering pow