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On the Road with Joanie Maro: Best Restaurants in Cairo

Best Restaurants in Cairo

Cairo, Egypt’s capitol city, has a wonderful, diverse selection of restaurants – both traditional Egyptian cuisine as well as international cuisine. The following is a selection of traditional Egyptian “must try’s”; providing travelers with the chance to immerse in the local culture, as opposed to the usual tourist crowd.

Abou Tarek

Location: 40 Sharia Champollion, corner of Sharia Maarouf in the center of Cairo, about a 15-minute walk from the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities and Tahrir Square.

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Enjoy kushari at Abou Tarek with local friends.

A trip to Egypt is not complete without trying Egypt’s staple street food, Kushari. You can find Kushari anywhere, from a 2-story Kushari restaurant like Abou Tarek, to a man with a cart on the side of a dusty country road. Kushari is by far the most delicious thing I have ever tried and it gives comfort food a whole new meaning. Kushari is made of rice, lentils and macaroni, topped with crisp onions and spicy tomato sauce. It has no meat, but even the biggest of carnivores will adore it. Filling and savory, it is absolutely Egypt’s “don’t miss” dish. Whenever I am in Egypt, my good friend Mohamed always takes me to Abou Tarek, my recommendation for the best Kushari in all of Egypt.

The owner of the restaurant is a man called “Abou Tarek” (Abou Tarek translates to “Tarek’s dad”). A self made man, he started down the ladder, beginning to sell Kushari in a street cart and today he owns this huge 2-story restaurant. What is really unique is that he still goes into the restaurant everyday to supervise the work.

The restaurant is crowded, but not in a bad way. I have never had a problem finding a seat, but expect to be surrounded by a lot people, which makes it a great place to interact with the local scene. The ambience is warm and bright, with neon signs guiding the way. Sit on the top story opposite a gigantic fish tank to observe the street vendors outside.

Price: Expect to pay around 5-7EGP, the equivalent of 1 USD.
Hours of operation: 9:00am – 11:00pm
Phone: 0225665935

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Tawfikiya Café

Location: 13 Sarata Al Azbakya. About a 19-minute walk from Tahrir Square, straight through the bustling heart of down town Cairo.

After a filling meal at Abou Tarek, it is my tradition to go to Tawfikika Café. The Café is a short distance from the famous Kushari restaurant, through the bright and lively shopping streets of Cairo. The Café is an ideal spot to enjoy either Sahlab or Karkadey. Sahlab is a sweet drink usually served hot and made out of dried and crushed orchis mascula (a type of purple orchid), sesame seeds, coconut, sugar, milk, and topped with raisins and nuts. Karkadey in a traditional Egyptian juice, made from dried Hibiscus flower. It is a deep red color and, like Sahlab, is very sweet. Karkadey can be served either cold or hot. Like Kushari, you can find Karkadey and Sahlab everywhere, from street kiosks to restaurants.

However, I prefer to enjoy these beverages on the outside patio of Tawfikika Café. It is on the outskirts of the busy Cairo promenade, situated in a dark alley where “people watching” is an accessible and enjoyable pastime. If you go here at night, you can look up and see bats zoom through the night sky, making for a very unforgettable viewing experience.

Price: 10-11 EGP (1-2USD)
Hours of operation: 12:00 noon – 1:00am

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Rifai

Location: 27 Midan Saiyida Zeinab, opposite Saiyida Zeinab Mosque. Rifai is situated in the medieval core of modern Cairo, in the area know as Islamic Cairo, a part of the city that holds the most famous and exquisite Islamic monuments and mosques.

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Enjoying a classic Egyptian meal of Nifa.

Finding this restaurant is an adventure in itself. Islamic Cairo is full of abandoned buildings and ruins in the making, and you have to wind your way through a charming maze of alleyways by the sabil-kuttab of Sultan Mustapha. Once there, walk up a set of old, musty steps and when you find the sign posted “Mongy District”, you’ll know you’re in the right spot.

My favorite Egyptian dish after Kushari is Kofta and Nifa. Kofta is ground meet – usually beef, chicken or lamb– mixed with spices and/or onions and roasted to utter perfection. Nifa is roasted goat. The ideal place to get both of these dishes, in my opinion, is at Rifai.

Rifai is a renowned nighttime restaurant, known especially for their Kofta and Nifa cuisine. A good friend of mind recommended this place the last time I was in Cairo and I am glad I heeded his advice. So high in demand is its popularity, people are known to drive all the way from Heliopolis just for a takeaway of these excellent dishes.

Make sure to try a side of Babaganush (a mixture of eggplant, tahini and olive oil) and wash it all down with a glass of salad juice with chili to complete your delectable meal.

Price: 85 EGP (12 USD). one dish of Kofta and Nifa easily serves up to 3 people.
Hours of operation: 5pm – 5am (perfect for the Cairo night owl)
Phone: 012 334 4278

 Abou El Sid

Location: 157 26th of July Street, Zamalek, Cairo.

Zamalek boasts several “up-scale” restaurants, and Abou El Sid is one of them. Zamalek, comprised mainly of Ex-pats, has a lot of foreign (non-Egyptian) fare, with lots of choices for vegetarians and also popular bars where you can consume and purchase alcohol. Despite the variety of global dishes, I still go for the more traditional, thus my recommendation for Abou El Sid.

The food here is classic Egyptian. The signature dish is Chicken Molukhiyya. Molukiyya is an Egyptian herb that has been used since ancient times and has a pleasantly bitter taste that when cooked exudes a certain viscosity which helps thicken the liquid it is immersed in. Chicken Molukiyya is a soup featuring this star herb and flavored with garlic, cardamom and bay leaf, then topped with shredded cooked chicken, red onion and lemon.

Although the food in general at Abou El Sid is delectable and hearty, what you really come to enjoy is the venue itself and it’s antiquarian décor. The ambiance has a wonderful old-fashioned colonial feel, warmly dark and golden, augmented by odd little touches such as the tent fabric upholstery on the bar stools and the torches on the walls. Abou El Sid provides customers with a unique chance for both past and present to combine in your surroundings and on your taste buds.

Price: the pricy side of moderate, around 48 EGP (7 USD)
Hours of operation: 11am – 2am.
Phone: 02 2735 9640.

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Hati el-Guesh (aka Emara)

Location: 32 Midan Falaki, corner of Tahrir and Falki Streets.

This is a “must visit” restaurant for first time visitors to Cairo. It is an absolutely immaculate little place serving well-prepared Egyptian standards, such as Kebab (spiced mince patties) and stuffed pigeon, with excellent mezze (appetizers). For those staying in hotels nearby, they also offer takeaway and home delivery service. What I find especially appealing about this restaurant is the classical Arabic music that fills the room, drowning out the busy street life outside.

Enjoying an Egyptian spread of mezze dishes.
Enjoying an Egyptian spread of mezze dishes.

I realize Westerners may be a bit apprehensive about trying pigeon, but I encourage people to embrace their adventurous spirit and give it a try. This restaurant is a good place for first timers to experience the dish, as the taste is milder than in other restaurants.

Pigeon (hamam) is common in Egypt, often served with freek (spicy wheat) stuffing. There’s not much meat on a pigeon, so it’s best to order a couple per person. In slightly fancier establishments, like Hati el-Guesh, you may also encounter pigeon in a tageen, stewed with onions, tomatoes and rice in an earthenware pot. Add a side of mezze (a side dish often including olives and stuffed vine leaves) to make your meal a complete success.

Price: between 20-45 EGP (3 – 7 USD)
Hours of operation: Daily noon-midnight.
Phone: 02 2794 5438

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Extraordinary patisseries:

El Abd Bakery

Location: 25 Sharia Talaat Harb. El Abd Bakery is in the same neighborhood as Abou Tarek and Tawfikiya Café in downtown Cairo.

Without a doubt this is Cairo’s most famous bakery. There is no difficulty finding this pastry lover’s paradise, as you can easily identify it by the crowds of people outside tearing into their croissants, sweets and sugary pies.

This sweet shop has every traditional Egyptian treat one could dream of, such as Atif (a type of nut filled pancake), Basbousa, Almond Tahini Date Balls, Acacia Mahsia-Bil-Goz (walnut stuffed prunes), Stuffed Carmel Walnuts, Egyptian Palace Bread, Rice Pudding, Ma’amoul (Lebanese date stuffed pastries), spiced oranges and raisins, ice cream, Baklava, chocolates and cakes galore.

It is important to note that this patisserie is tiny, and there isn’t anywhere to sit down and eat inside. So, do as the locals do and fight your way to the front of the line, shout out your order, and then eat your treats outside on the street. Pace yourself, these sugary delights will not make your hips shrink, so enjoy what you can and then take a box home. Don’t be put off by the queue either. It’s worth it.

 Price: 2 – 50 EGP (0.50 USD – 8 USD)

Now that your mouth is officially salivating and your stomach growling, go to Egypt and experience the amazing culture of gastronomy for yourselves. Make sure to take plenty of pictures and share your yummy adventures on social media, because although Egypt is a fairly modern country, many of these restaurants that I mention above do not have websites or a presence on Facebook or Instagram. The snap shots you take of your food journey through Egypt will help these amazing businesses continue to prosper and grow. Happy Eating!

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