A Tale of Two Worlds in One City and in One Evening
Friday starts the weekend in Saudi Arabia. and a good friend of mine, Waleed, and I took the opportunity to visit the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh to see what it had to offer. It's a beautiful but ostentatious complex of facilities that serves high-level conferences for the Kingdom. Originally built by the King's son solely for use by the Royal family, the complex is now managed by the Ritz-Carlton and used to welcome any guest who can afford to stay at the hotel.
We sat in an outdoor atrium that allowed smoking where I ordered a Montecristo #1 (a Havana cigar). Like most Cuban cigars I've smoked, this stick was stale and its wrapper sloughed off as I smoked it. Still, it was a restful respite from the crazy traffic outside the Ritz compound. The ostentatious atrium sported a 600 year old olive tree that was transplanted from Lebanon and a 400 year old South American tree also transported and planted into the atrium. Actually there are three atriums, one reserved for "singles," meaning males unaccompanied by females -- where we sat, another for females only, and a third that was reserved for "families."
I ordered Arabic coffee and Waleed ordered some kind of foo-foo pomegranate drink. The coffee tray arrived with a plate of Kingdom dates, renowned to be the best in the world -- and they were the best I've had! The Arabic coffee comes heavily flavored with cardamom and sugar. There's very little coffee flavor that comes through the spice. Enjoyed it very much and will have to do it again. The restaurants at the Ritz didn't open for dinner until 7:00 pm, and we weren't going to wait three hours, so we chose to head out to a Pakistani restaurant that Waleed had located by talking with our hotel staff.
Saudi has over 9 million foreign workers who provide most of the services and all of the menial labor in the Kingdom. Many of them run businesses to support the local workers. Whole neighborhoods in Riyadh look like the picture to the left -- streets filled with small shops and restaurants serving foreign food. This is where we found the Pakistani restaurant that Waleed wanted to go to. We had tried to locate it the night before but gave up after an hour of driving around and getting lost only to eat at a Indian restaurant one street away.
Most of these "restaurants" aren't classified or licensed as restaurants at all. They are licensed as "kitchens," meaning they are allowed to cook set-piece meals they vend to taxi drivers and other foreigners who purchase meals and take away. The gentleman sitting to the right was a Pakistani taxi driver who ended-up driving Waleed and me back to our hotel following dinner. As it turns out, he had worked for Americans elsewhere and spoke very good English. "Real" restaurants have menus and are allowed to cook multiple items for a sit down customer base. But, the few available tables at this kitchen served us well, except that there was no silverware available. We had to eat with our hands using the naan provided with our meal.
Waleed speaks five or more languages including all the ones from Pakistan. So, he ordered-up a small feast which we devoured. After this experience using my hands slurping down lentils and curry, the next day I purchased a set of spoons to bring with me for our next adventurous meal which we are planning next weekend. During the week, we tend to walk from our hotel to the mall's food court across the street to take our meals. But now, that I've been made aware of this other world here in Riyadh, I won't be a stranger.