When I was a college freshman my mother sent me an article by food writer Coleman Andrews, talking about how important it is to have a go-to neighbourhood restaurant where the staff knew your habits and preferences, where you were a regular. I could not quite understand it. At that age going to a restaurant was a special occasion and I could not imagine having enough money to dine out so frequently that I would go to the same place twice much less become a regular. Now I know what he meant.
I lived in Garden City for six years, in Zamalek for eleven, in Heliopolis for four, and now I’ve been in Maadi for one. In each neighbourhood I had a restaurant that I visited more than all the others and where I established a relationship with the people who worked there. In Garden City it was not, as you might expect, Taboula, even though I lived in the building next door, because in those days Taboula was still a brothel called Borsalino. There was however a little kofta and kebab place on Kasr al Aini that I adored. In Zamalek it was for a long time La Piazza at the Four Corners, (now closed), and then I shifted to La Bodega. In Heliopolis I lived next to the Fairmont and was a regular at all the restaurants there, especially Aqua E Luce and then, later, Maria’s, which has the best Mexican food I have ever had anywhere: well worth the trip.
Maadi has been a different story. When you move into a new area it takes a while to familiarise yourself with what is on offer. I knew absolutely nothing about this little village and set about exploring. There are some great restaurants here but over time I discovered that what Maadi does better than anywhere else in Cairo is Asian food thanks to the large Asian community located here.
I had sworn off Chinese food a long time ago because I felt that there were no decent Chinese restaurants in town and because I had become more attracted to Thai and Japanese cuisine. In Maadi I learned that one can in fact find authentic Chinese fare and have started in on it again. There is a hole-in-the-wall place off Nasr St. called the Joy Luck Chinese restaurant; there are at least three similar places on Rd. 233, (especially notable is Genghis Khan for their hotpot); and my favorite is China Winds near CAC. Recently at China Winds I ate marinated chicken feet, braised camel hooves, lily bulb soup, and duck eggs preserved in ash and salt for a hundred days. Try finding that Downtown.
But the restaurant that I have come to think of as my special neighbourhood place has turned out to be a Korean one, Gaya (41, Rd. 218). It doesn’t hurt that her royal self loves it too.
If Cairenes know anything of Korean food, they associate it with those faux-Korean tourist places that serve Mongolian barbeque. Sure, it’s fun to cook meat over a charcoal brazier sunk into your table, but this has nothing to do with true Korean cuisine, which is based upon the oriental rule of the five flavours: salt, sweet, sour, hot and bitter. At Gaya these are achieved through soy, honey, vinegar, chilies and ginger.
Founded by Ali Lee back in the mid-‘80s and run now by his daughters Eunyoung and Eunjoo, many of the ingredients for their soups, spices and sauces are imported directly from Korea, and they make their own tofu fresh every morning. Gaya has a pan-Asian menu, but skip the spring rolls and go for the recipes that the family brought with them from Seoul. My favorites are the subtly perfumed bimbimbap (poached egg and fried rice), the cracklingly sweet kaalbi (barbeque beef ribs) and the peppery kimchi jjigae (a soup of pickled cabbage and chilies).
But you know, this is a friendly, casual neighbourhood place, filled mostly with Asian ex-pats. So you don’t need my advice; and you don’t need a menu: just make yourself at home and ask for whatever Eunyoung and Eunjoo are making that day for their family and friends. If you get to know them well enough, the wait staff won’t even ask, they’ll give you a warm welcome, take you to your usual table, bring you your preferred beverage, set out some salads and appetisers, and tell the chef that a couple more have dropped by for lunch.