Standing the test of time

In Cairo’s intensely competitive grilled meats arena, Rifai in Sayeda Zeinab has attracted positive press and a firm, loyal following yet finding it is a whole different story.

Tucked behind a traditional sabeel (water distribution center) across the street from the Sayeda Zeinab mosque, Rifai’s diners don’t stumble upon its entrance; they go there on a mission. 

This is exactly what we did a few nights ago, after taking a visiting friend for a Nile felucca ride, ignoring the fact that there was not a single flag fluttering on our whole trip down to the boats. 

Without a breath of air moving over the water, we rowed upstream, anchored for a while, then floated back downstream with the current.  The views were nice, but our friend was doubting our credentials as tour guides.

To get back in her good graces, we needed a win; off the beaten track, but quality.  Rifai fit the bill nicely.  Started over 40 years ago by Mohammad Rifai, Rifai occupies a single room on an otherwise nondescript back alley. 

Only 10 tables fill the place, and lines quickly form. The walls are full of impressive pictures depicting Mohammad posing with the movers and shakers of Cairo’s social scene.  Politicians, actors, and sports stars seem to be regular visitors.  There’s a particularly good shot with a youthful Mohammad posing with a nearly unbelievably youthful looking Amr Moussa.

Rifai has no menu, and I’d think twice before coming here if you’re a vegetarian.  Starters come out as you’d expect; bowls of tahina, babaganouj, salad and even an inventive drink made out of leftover salad dressing mixed with vegetables and a kick of spice.  (I started out skeptical, but found myself draining my neighbor’s glass).  The bread is thick and fresh, on the oat or bran-rich side of the aish beladi spectrum. 

The central feature of the place is the grilled meats, cooked around the corner in the alley on a massive bank of roaring flames.  Kofta, rayesh (lamb chops), niva (lamb, similar in texture to a flank steam), and tarb (kofta wrapped in fat) are on offer, all served on a platter on a heap of parsley.  You order by the kilo.  A quarter kilo should be more than enough per person, unless you arrive with a roaring appetite.  But don’t worry if you over-order, you can always take it home.

The kofta was excellent though our rayesh was a bit dry, while the tarb was superb but a bit disturbing given the amount of fat that accompanied it.  My personal favorite was the niva: moist, tender, nearly melting in the mouth.  The roz bil leban is a solid way to finish.

Rifai is a family place.  Unusually for Cairo, it is non-smoking.  Even more unusually, the smoking ban is enforced.  Kids fill the place and the waiters often scoop them up and take them on a tour of the other tables.  It’s open every day, from six in the evening right through to six the next morning. 

I asked the very friendly wait staff who could possibly come for a massive infusion of grilled meats in the wee hours of the morning.  They pointed knowingly to all the photos of film stars on the wall, as if to point out a parallel universe from mine in Cairo that doesn’t involve getting young kids on the school bus by Rifai closing time.

Cairo is fairly well accomplished in the field of grilled meats.  High quality options come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, from places well-established to highly unexpected.  Inspired by that great scene in the Yacoubian Building film, we dutifully paid a visit to Kababji in the Sofitel Zamalek, and were as impressed as we expected to be. 

Surprisingly, one of my best grilled meat meals in Cairo came at a rather ordinary looking water slide park in 6th of October.  We paid our entry fee, and were handed lunch tickets, almost as an afterthought.  After several hours on the slides, we went over to see what was on offer.  The results were spectacular, and the meal ranks among my best ever for grilled meat in Cairo.

In an era of chain brands and mass standardization however, Rifai is unique and full of character, a built-in memory bank to a Cairo that has passed, changing, through the decades.  The slowly aging face of Mohammad Rifai in the pictures on the wall says it all: from youthful exuberance to a slightly tired but wiser old age, mellow and a bit frayed around the edges. 

Rifai has stood the test of time.  It’s been doing things the same way for decades, and most likely will continue on for decades more.  It’s a solid, off-the-beaten-track gem of an offering in Cairo’s old district.

Details: Open 7 days a week, 6pm-6am; walk back along an alley way behind a sabeel across the street from the Sayeda Zeinab mosque; no alcohol; dinner for 5 LE220; no deliveries; there is A/C. Tel: 012 334 4278.  No delivery.

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