Dining Out Magazine

My Love Affair in Beirut

By Periscope @periscopepost
My love affair in Beirut

Barbar in Hamra. Gabrielle's in love. Photo credit: Gabrielle Jackson

I’m going to be brutally honest. I am going to expose myself and confess my mortal sin. Stop reading now if you’re squeamish.

I had a love affair in Beirut.

It made me happy. I was excited to wake up in the morning and know he was so close. My day couldn’t start until I’d laid eyes on him. Even at 5 am he was still making me happy. Just thinking about him now puts a massive smile on my face at the same time it causes a pit in my stomach. For I’m afraid I will never feel again the way that I felt when I was with him. I’m afraid I’ll never again find what I found in Beirut.

His name is Barbar. He’s a snack bar in Hamra.

But calling him a snack bar belies his beauty, his diversity, his humor and his absolute deliciousness. “Snack bar” cannot communicate the quality of his produce. “Snack bar” makes it seem like it might not be a gourmand’s delight, a food heaven, a utopia of sorts. It’s the best of the best of snack bars. If snack bars like this existed everywhere, the world would be a better place. And probably a lot less fat.

I will now list the things I ate at Barbar, but I am a lady, after all, so I will not reveal the quantity. I ate: chicken schawarm; lamb schawarma; lamb kofte kebab; felafel; manoushy, or lahm bi ajin (those Arabic pizzas); spinach pastries; freshly squeezed pomegrante and orange juice.

Yes, once discovered, I ate there every day.

Yes, once discovered, I ate there every day. Until you’ve experienced it, I don’t think you can imagine it because there is simply no comparison. Barbar has at least three branches in Beirut, but the one I’m talking about is in Hamra. With a series of individual specialty stores, it overwhelms the block: There’s the juice store, the pastry store, the schawarma store, the felafel store, the kebab store, the ice cream store. People overflow from the stores and eat on the street, or hurry back to their offices, homes, hotels, shops or schools. Barbar-branded home-delivery motorbikes line the streets – you’re never more than 50 meters away from a Barbar bike in Beirut – such is its popularity.

The quality of the produce is outstanding. You can stand and watch them make the felafel, which is a sight to behold in itself – everything at Barbar is done with finesse.

It also means whatever you eat, it’s fresh. At 5 am one Friday morning, I stopped by with some Beirut boys and we had a little chat to the late night worker as he prepared our chicken schawarma. The chicken had been cooked for two hours and it was already finished – we were getting the last delicious carvings. He explained to us, while we waited, how they marinate the chicken (the use the full chicken for this schawarma) with cardamom, cinnamon and cumin. It’s the sweet spices that make it so tasty, according to this very tired man.

But it’s not just the sweet spicy marinade that makes this chicken schawarma the best chicken schawarma in the entire history of the universe – it’s the way it’s served as well.

But it’s not just the sweet spicy marinade that makes this chicken schawarma the best chicken schawarma in the entire history of the universe – it’s the way it’s served as well. It is served in a small piece of Lebanese bread, smeared with some garlic paste with a few pickles thrown in. That’s it. The garlic paste is simply crushed garlic blended with salt until it is smooth and creamy.

The final product is small – this is a snack bar, after all. But its size is important, because at 5am, after a very long drinking session, a huge sandwich full of rich meat and strong sauces may not be what the stomach requires. A good quality snack with great flavor is the key to a good sleep and no hangover. And it also means you can eat it at any time of the day and not have to use the excuse of drunkenness to fulfill your darkest desires. There’s no shame in a chicken schawarma from Barbar.

The size also means that you can also have a felafel without feeling too guilty. Or, say it’s your last day in Beirut and you can’t decide between chicken schawarma, felafel or manoushy, you could get all three! (Another confession: I ate the manoushy later. Even I couldn’t fit it all in in the end.)

Back to the schwarma: It’s gold! It’s great! It’s genius! There’s no competition for flavours. You taste the chicken, which is enhanced by the garlic paste and the pickles provide a nice bit of acidity. Perfect, just perfect! Why oh why can’t anybody else do schawarma like this?

This fine attention to the balance of flavours is present across the whole range of Barbar products. The spinach pastries are sprinkled with sumac and a squeeze of lemon provides a tangy zing that makes it sing songs in your mouth. The felafel sandwich has the obligatory hummus, of the highest quality of course, and is finished with pickled turnips. Not only does this make it a colourful snack, but a rounded one as well. The manoushy, if you get a meat one, can be wrapped around some pickles and fresh mint or if you opt for the zaatar, a dollop of that other Middle Eastern deity, labneh.

This is the stuff of food heaven, my friends. Committing the sin of gluttony was worth it, for you, Barbar. I just have one last question: even though you’re heaven, can I continue to see you in hell?

This post first appeared on Kebab Quest.

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