Sittin’, Waitin’, Wishin’
I’d spent the last six months without treats and braving an insane intermittent fasting plan. I managed to lose 27 pounds with the sole purpose of eating my way through Beirut. I’d never been more excited about the food of any country and knew if I didn’t shed some serious weight before I arrived, I’d come back unable to fit in my pants (or get a date). Now, nearly 30 pounds lighter, I was afforded some leeway to do some real damage when it came to eating, and boy was I ready!
My pre-trip recon consisted solely of Mark Wiens‘ hour-long Beirut “food tour” on YouTube. I was glued to every second of it, as I took notes of each dish and restaurant name, pinning each food cart, bakery and hole-in-the-wall establishment to my iPhone’s GPS map. I’d never come anywhere so prepared to eat. Add the fact that this was my very first trip that was canceled due to Corona, back in March of 2020, and I was just ecstatic that I’d finally be in Beirut in general – it was a long time coming. I would celebrate with many special feasts.
My first attempt was a bust – I headed out way too early that first morning, only to see every place I visited shuttered. In fact, the whole city seemed closed. Apparently, they sleep in here on Saturdays. So I headed back to the hotel for a nice nap, and by the time I woke, Beirut was open for business.
First stop: Hajj Nasr, for soujek (fermented sausage wrap). It was delicious! Oh, how I wanted the tebleh nayyeh (raw meat wrap), but they were out. I’d have to try back later. Nonetheless, my tastebuds and tummy were now satisfied and my hangriness had finally subsided. I was so hungry that morning, especially after that initial A.M. trek, but refused to waste any room in my stomach on hotel food – I wasn’t going to use up any precious real estate on anything but the special items on my list, and the soujek ended up being so worth the wait. Now, the world’s best ice cream cone was about to be consumed…
I Scream, You Scream
It’s always a great trip when I stumble upon my favorite “something” of all-time. Whether it’s pancakes, the view from a urinal or the music in an elevator, I make a big deal whenever I encounter the best “something,” no matter what that “thing” is! In the case of today, I enjoyed the absolute best ice cream cone of my life – hands down, no contest! Hanna Mitri has been serving the special ice cream since 1942. Another pick from Mark Wiens’ Beirut food tour, I almost missed this nondescript definition of a “hole-in-the-wall,” with no sign, no banner, not even a piece of paper that said “Hanna Mitri.” Luckily, I spied a man scooping cream from the big white freezer inside the closet of a space and came closer to find I’d found the spot. My life was about to change.
I chatted up the lady who was sitting right outside – she ended up being the wife of the owner. Soon, the man inside began making me my masterpiece: a cone that included a half-dozen flavors, all strategically scooped and stacked in a special order that was made to please the tongue and stomach. I don’t remember the exact order, but it started with rose water-flavored ice cream and ended with milk-flavored. The middle layers included apricot, the best strawberry ice cream ever, lemon, chocolate, pistachio and maybe more. I was not even a quarter-way through this cone, before I decided that no-doubt, this was a winner: the best ice cream cone I’d ever eaten and a new recipient of a Ramblin’ Randy “Best-Of” Award! I’ve never had anything like it!
These Boots Were Made for Walkin’
I spent the next few hours clocking in 20,000+ steps, heading downtown to check out the center, taking a stroll along the sea past fishermen, and eventually reaching Ichkhanian Bakery, which was sadly, already closed by the time I got there. But I enjoyed criss-crossing through the back streets of Beirut and took many breaks along the way to sit, relax, take photos and sip coffee.
While Ichkhanian was closed, there was no shortage of other bakery and treat shops open for business as I traversed through the neighborhoods of Beirut. I enjoyed a tasty eclair at a French bakery called Lea’s Patisserie and some kind of amazing apricot concoction with nuts on top at a little traditional, tiny bakery called Rashad. The old man inside was very nice, insisting I “taste before I buy,” as he sliced little pieces of various goodies and passed them to me over the counter. I finished the day off with a frozen lemonade with mint from Juice Hawari. I don’t want to think about how much sugar I ingested that first day, but at least I burned some calories with all that walking. And I wasn’t done…
If Ya Smell What the Rock is Cookin’
Next, I walked another mile or two over to the sea to watch the sun set on Raouché Rocks. It was magical. The people-watching was just as beautiful as the landscape. It was a great first day in Beirut. I walked a final mile and a half back to the hotel, clocking in just over 20,000 steps before collapsing in bed.
I couldn’t get my sleep right–waking up at 4AM and not falling back asleep until 8AM–so I didn’t end up leaving my hotel room until close to 1PM. I hated wasting so much of the day, but what are you gonna do – I don’t enjoy myself unless I’m well rested. I’d make the most of the remaining hours with a day trip out of town, hopping into an Uber and heading north. My driver was the adventure alone! Mohammed was a white-haired, sixty-something man in glasses, who drove a car with the headlights missing. I mean, they were completely missing – literally holes in the front of the car where the lamps were supposed to be! Thank God it wasn’t nighttime! And Mohammed smoked cigarettes the whole way there. Unbelievable! We weren’t on the road but three minutes before he pulled to the side to order us both coffees. I don’t think any of this was in the Uber manual of accepted practices, but I just went along with it – “When in Beirut.”
13 miles north we parted ways. I’d arrived in the town of Jounieh to take a ride on the Téléférique. Taking the old cable car up to Harissa was awesome. I enjoyed views of the sea and the city – at times it felt like I was just inches from the balconies of residents living in the high-rises along the car’s path – I could see right into their living rooms. The sky was blue and the water was bluer. I marveled at paragliders floating from the mountain down to the sea. Soon I was at the top saying hello to Our Lady of Lebanon and enjoying the gorgeous views below.
Unlike Beirut, I didn’t come to Jounieh with any intel on food spots and I was getting hungry. Having to punt, I picked one of the few restaurants located on the main road, wandering in to meet an excited owner who was happy to have me as his customer on only his second day open. He didn’t have a menu for me, but instead, in broken English, explained I’d be receiving a giant spread. I was ready for it. What I wasn’t ready for was the concert. Just when I settled into my seat to enjoy my drink and the ocean views in front of me, the music started. The live band was awesome, don’t get me wrong – drums, keyboards, an over-enthusiastic singer – I just didn’t want to lose my eardrums on this trip, and they cranked those giant speakers to 10. Jeezus. I’m getting older, what can I say – loud noises upset me! I tried to enjoy the experience as much as I could. Soon my belly was full and my ears ringing. I got outta there as soon as I could, back into an Uber and continued heading north.
Byblos by Sundown
Lebanese friends back home insisted I visit the ancient town of Byblos, so I did. I spent about an hour wandering the cobblestone streets and browsing the souvenir stands before making my way down to the marina. On my way back up I stopped to visit the fish fossil museum. I chatted with the owner, Pierre, who explained how all the fossils (many of extinct species) were found. He served me coffee and didn’t hassle me to buy a thing (I did end up buying a couple things anyway). The coolest part was when Pierre informed me he’s taken many trips to my hometown of Tucson, Arizona, to present his exhibits at the Gem and Mineral Show. What a great man – make sure to pay him and his museum a visit when you’re in Byblos.
Before leaving I ran into my Uber driver. Not Mohammed, but my second driver – from Jounieh to Byblos. He’d told me, “I love you,” after I tipped him five USD for the ride. This time, he was excited to show me the new shoes he bought, and served up another heartfelt (and borderline uncomfortable) “I love you.” Why was he so grateful for a measly five bucks? I’d soon find out.
Day Two is a Wrap (Actually, it’s a Burger)
I drifted off a few times on the ride back to Beirut, as the sun set below the sea. I liked Jounieh, Harissa and Byblos, but I found myself already missing Beirut. I really loved that city and was glad to be “coming home.” Even though I didn’t need another meal after that giant and very late lunch, I figured a full stomach would help me sleep, so I headed out on foot to try and find something, but my hotel wasn’t located in an area with a lot of shops or restaurants. After walking almost a mile, I finally came upon a fast food joint called Road 7. It looked legit enough and I saw a bunch of locals eating right there on the street, so I gave it a go. The Lebanese hamburger I was recommended by the cashier wasn’t bad, but considering I was in Lebanon and eating a hamburger – well, I’m not sure how I feel about that.
RAMBLIN’ TIP: Stay close to the center. I stayed in the neighborhood of Le Verdun because it was the only Marriott property was there (I stayed for the points), but it was a little far away from the action. Next time, I’d probably stay a lot closer to the action. You can find a hotel in the center of town HERE.
Third and Final
It was my third and final full day in Lebanon and I was on a mission to check off a few more food spots on the list. I strolled over to Al Soussi, which had been closed on my first attempt, but thankfully now, it was open and humming. I glanced down at the screenshot I grabbed from Mark’s video to see if the same man was there – and he was! I asked for a table and showed him the screenshot on my phone. He seemed amused by it and all of a sudden very friendly! And soon came the dishes. Like the ice cream at Hanna Mitri, this was one special experience. The hairs on my arm stood up as the dishes were presented, just like the ones in the video. The only thing the video couldn’t prepare me for was the actual taste. When that first spoonful of yogurt met my tongue…wow! Pure electricity. The egg with lamb was excellent. Accompanying the dishes were fresh tomato, onion and mint. The entire meal was just phenomenal, and I enjoyed eating outside on the sidewalk, on such a divine day, while I watched passers by to my left and two busy chefs to my right.
Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems
And then the bill came: 45,000 Lebanese Lira, which to my calculations, translated to 30 USD. I didn’t even have that much on me, so I had to excuse myself to the nearby ATM to withdraw another 50,000. Why was Lebanon so expensive? Friends had been telling me how bad the economy was here and raving about how the dollar would have me living like a king, but instead I was feeling like a peasant! I remember feeling robbed on day one when a cabbie charged me 50,000 (33 USD) for a short ride. The hamburger last night cost nearly 17 USD and even a small coffee at Starbucks was 9.29 USD. These were Paris/Venice prices! What gives? I was really confused.
Thankfully, a fellow traveler shed some light on the situation and what he told me fixed everything! Shout out to my buddy Austin Foo, who explained that in order for me to harness the economic prowess of the US dollar, I’d need to exchange cash dollars on the street to get the much more generous “black market rate,” rather than bank ATMs or using my credit card, which would provide a horrendous exchange. And wow, what a difference that made! For example: Withdrawing 100 USD from an ATM in Beirut gave me around 150,000 Lebanese lira, while exchanging that same 100 USD on the street, at a currency exchange booth, garnered me 1.3M lira. Yes, one point three MILLION! Holy cow. That breakfast that I just paid 30 USD for would’ve only cost me $3.22, had I exchanged my dollars on the street. I suddenly felt horrible that I was giving that cabbie a hard time for charging me 50,000 – I was positive that old man was trying to rip me off. Turns out he was only trying to charge me 3.58 USD, but because I’d used the ATM, it was costing me so much more. That giant lunch that filled the entire tabletop in Jounieh for 100,000? Yes – I thought I was being taken advantage of there, too. Seven bucks! Jeeze. I wanted to do my first two days over so bad! I’d been paying ten times for everything!!! What a dummy!
RAMBLIN’ TIP: Apparently, Hamra Street is the place to exchange money. There are a dozen currency exchange shops and kiosks all over Hamra. It’s just also a really cool boulevard, filled with cafés, shops and restaurants. I really enjoyed Hamra Street and would choose a hotel close to it on my next visit.
Now that my wallet was fat, with 1.3M lira, it was time to start living like a king. I headed directly to Spirit Thai Massage where I enjoyed an amazing hour-long Thai massage for the bargain-basement price of only $18.54. Amazing!
After the massage, it was over to the Dekwaneh neighborhood to visit Karim and the crew at Light FM. My full-time job is a radio personality and station manager, so I often try and visit stations when I’m abroad. What I’ll remember most about Light FM is its location: inside The Cosmopolitan Hotel, with big glass windows overlooking the pool. How anyone gets any work done there is anyone’s guess – I’d wanna be at the pool all day! I enjoyed a nice visit, and then headed back to the massage parlor for another $18 massage. Because, why not? Sadly, my indulgence in body rubs cost me a falafel. By the time I meandered over to Falafel Tabbara, they were closing up shop. All that dickin’ around came with a price: no falafel for me!
I ended up back at Hajj Nasr for a second attempt at a tebleh neyyeh wrap but they were still “out” of it. This time the man explained that they simply hadn’t ordered the meat because of its price/inflation/the economy. Bummer, but it gives me something to come back for!
You really gotta feel for the people of Beirut. Not only did they have to deal with Corona Virus, but right in the middle of the pandemic, the city suffered a major explosion at the port that rocked the city. The accidental explosion of ammonium nitrate stored at a portside warehouse would kill over 200 people, cause over 7,500 injuries and rack up over 15 billion dollars in property damage. If you saw the video on the news, it truly looked like a nuclear bomb went off.
By the time I got to Beirut (June 2021) it looked like most of the city was put back together. I still saw some shops with blown out windows. The Hanna Mitri ice cream shop had moved locations because of the blast. And when I passed the port by taxi, I could definitely see signs of the explosion – including a giant structure (that looked like a grain tower) with its top blown away and the remainder mangled. Though I wanted to spend some time closer to ground zero, I ran out of time and never made it over. My thoughts are with the people of Beirut – they’ve gone through so much. We can’t forget about the war that I grew up seeing on the nightly news.
Oh, and Syria
Random side note: It killed me being so close to Syria and not being able to visit. Damascus is but a two-hour drive from Beirut and Syria is high on the list of many extreme travelers like me. Contrary to popular belief, Damascus and its surrounding areas are pretty safe and stable. I’d originally planned this trip to Beirut to include an attached trip to Damascus–even securing a tour guide–but Syria’s borders have been locked down since Corona Virus reared its ugly head. I contemplated spending half a day getting a ride to the border and trying to talk my way in, but figured there was such a minuscule chance of success and hated to waste any precious Beirut time. I’ll try again in October.
Beirut was a city I was really sad to say goodbye to. And to think I only got to three places on my food list…fail! I’d risk missing my 3PM flight today to make two more stops on the way out.
I flagged down a cab and Mohammed (my taxista) and I began at Hanna Mitri for a second ice cream cone. It was as good as the first and I savored every lick. I’ve never had ice cream like this in my life and I relished every slurp of this cone in case I’d never have it again. Like a farewell kiss with a love you’re saying goodbye to forever: I took in every bite with enthusiasm, love and passion. This was the best I’d ever had.
Stop! Falafel Time!
Though I’d missed it the day before, I was bound and determined to get some Falafel Tabbara in my mouth before takeoff. I’d taken the liberty to make Mohammed my personal driver to complete all missions on the way to the airport, so Falafel Tabbara, here we come! I was already getting nervous that I may be cutting it too close, but was relieved to see that the doors were open and the little storefront was already humming when we arrived – there was not a second to spare. I compared the man inside with the one on my screenshot from Mark’s YouTube video, and that was him! He smiled and got super nice and welcoming after I showed him his photo on my phone, and soon, the magic was being made! I enjoyed watching the two-man crew prepare my falafel just like they did in the video. And, spoiler alert, it was fantastic – everything I thought it would be. The fresh mint leaves really made the entire wrap pop. I was so happy I’d made it to Falafel Tabbara.
I made it to the airport in time for my flight to Cyprus, with a fully belly and a feeling of accomplishment, although I did miss four places on that incredible list from Mark Wiens. How he did it all in 14 hours is beyond comprehension. How do you even fit all that food in your stomach in such a short time? I did successfully make it to half of them, including a double-dip at Hanna Mitri (pun intended). I really loved Beirut, and it probably goes down as the country with my favorite food anywhere. I hope you’ll visit, and I hope you’ll check off at least one or two of these awesome eateries as well. Don’t forget to watch Mark’s video HERE.
I should note the places I missed: Faysal Snack for the man’ousheh and halloumi loaf; Ichkhanian Bakery for the lahmajoun with pomegranate; Restaurant Joseph for their shawarma meat; and L’abeille D’or for their desserts. And, let’s not forget a return to Hajj Nasr for tebleh neyyeh that I missed on this run. I have a strong feeling I’ll be back to Beirut very soon. I still have to get to Syria, and Beirut’s probably my most viable entry point – so restaurants and snack shops, get ready!This entry was posted in Middle East