LITK: American Restaurant Chains in Saudi Arabia (Part One)

Ah, restaurant chains… We all have our various opinions for these mass producers of cuisine. Personally, I’m not really a fan. I’d rather have a small mom and pop style restaurant. The kind with twenty tables or less, local beer on tap, and the owner(s) working the dining area showing their appreciation.

However, there are is a benefit or two that comes with a mass produced international brand of dining establishment and its food. The first being familiarity. When you’ve been away from the wonderful country you call home, without and family for a few months, nothing helps curb the significant onslaught of home sickness like familiar food. Food is universal; and the title “comfort food,” in my opinion is quite relative to you and your needs in the moment.

Now, as I discussed in the last installment of Life in the Kingdom (LITK), there are many cultural differences that affect the day-to-day life of “expats.” In the case of Saudi Arabia these cultural differences steam into what restaurants can legally serve. In the Muslim culture, alcohol and pork products are not allowed to be consumed. Therefore, if you have an urge to eat a bacon cheese burger and wash it down with a beer, it better be beef or turkey bacon and a non-alcoholic beer. However, there are some upsides to the cultural differences on this subject. For instance, absolutely EVERYTHING here can be delivered to you. Whether it’s something standard, like a pizza delivery, or a third-party service app, like Uber Eats or GoWaiter, everything here can be brought to your door. Or in my case, to the outer security gate of my compound. Even fast food! Heck, I even have my groceries delivered to me every Saturday morning which is cheaper than driving to a store.

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Khodarji delivery truck, via jordonsun.com

With all that said, I have done my absolute best to take these factors into account when making these lists in attempt to be fair, but honestly these factors carry a heavier weight on some of the establishments. Without further delay, here are the best and worst five American restaurants in the Kingdom:

Best 5

Texas De Brazil

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Texas De Brazil storefront, via texasdebrazil.com

Easily the most expensive establishment in this post; Texas De Brazil is usually something myself and my co-workers save for special occasions, like a promotion, or someone ending their contract and returning home permanently.

For those who aren’t familiar with Texas De Brazil, and other Brazilian steakhouses let me explain. This style of restaurant is a carnivorous dream of grilled, smoked, and roasted; beef, chicken, lamb, shrimp, veal, and in non-Muslim countries, pork! Brazilian steakhouses are a form of buffet in which you are brought different types of meats on long steel spit rods, by the staff where they cut you a portion directly to your plate.

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Lamb chops, via texasdebrazil.com

When you are seated you are given a way to indicate if you do or do not need to be served. In the case of Texas De Brazil, this is done by using a drink coaster with a green side to indicate you want food, and a red side to indicate you do not require more food at the time.

Now, it is not only a continual heavenly onslaught of decadent meats. Oh no, my dear friends! Typically, there is an extravagant salad/cold bar that is included. Also depending on the establishment, hot sides are brought to you the same as the protein, or like Texas De Brazil, there may be a hot bar.

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Texas De Brazil cold bar, via denverpost.com

The Texas De Brazil in Riyadh does an excellent job of holding the high standards of the brand started in the state.

Outback Steakhouse

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Outback Steakhouse storefront in Riyadh, via David Cannon

Bloomin’ Onions, endless bread, and Wild West Shrimp are in high supply here in the kingdom. In true Outback fashion, when you walk in the door it looks exactly like it would if you would walk into one of the franchise’s locations anywhere in the U.S. The décor on the wall, the tables, and even the staff’s attire are on point in every way.

The one thing that sets the Outback here apart from others in the chain is something that you can find in most steakhouses here, but only in high hand establishments in the states. Waygu beef! This kind of beef is so spectacular, it can’t be over-hyped. Simply put, I makes Kobe beef look like freezer burned USDA Choice sirloin from Wal-Mart.

McDonald’s

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Riyadh McDonald’s, via eyeofriyadh.com

I feel like people may be surprised by this choice, but please let me make my case before you scoff and quit reading. Remember, food here for many in my situation is about finding anything to feel normal. With certain things being banned or inaccessible, achieving that normal feeling sometimes means pulling into a McDonald’s drive through after a bad day at work and ordering a large fry and a Coca-Cola. Typically, I’m not a fast food fan, but honestly no other franchise is able to bring the consistency, a world over, quite like that of the “Golden Arches.”

In my opinion, McDonald’s outside of the U.S. are usually better. I don’t really know why that is, but that is my experience. In the case of Saudi Arabia, Mickey D’s sure is! There are certain things I just find awesome about them. Plus, they are everywhere here!  There are legitimately eight locations within a five-mile radius of where I live.

The breakfast menu is quite different due to pork being a no-go here. They do a heck of job filling in the gaps though. My favorite way this is done is them adding all of the chicken sandwiches and nuggets to the breakfast menu. That’s right, if you’re feeling like a special kind of fat kid one morning, YOU CAN HAVE McNuggets FOR BREAKFAST! To boot, you can also have French fries before 10:30 in the morning. If you’ve never had the chance to eat a spicy chicken sandwich, fries, and large coffee at nine in the morning, I highly recommend it.

Texas (Church’s) Chicken

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Texas Chicken storefront, via thefoodtechie.com

This choice was a surprise to me, honestly, but like I said before, I’m trying my best to give an honest evaluation. Because it can’t associate with the Christian faith, the franchise is forced to change its name from “Church’s Chicken” to “Texas Chicken” here in the Kingdom.

Now, this is not the best fried chicken chain I have found in Riyadh, but it is the best American franchise that is here. Really, I don’t even care for Church’s in the states. Typically, I’ll choose a gas station deli over it, if I’m honest, but here it is higher quality.

At “Texas Chicken,” the mashed potatoes and gravy are insanely good for some reason! The honey-butter biscuits are also seemingly better quality than their “Church’s” equivalent. Combine that with an order of 3-piece spicy dark meat to dip in it, and it’s just straight MONEY. Finish it off with delivery, and it just puts a pretty little bow on the meal.

Krispy Kreme Doughnuts

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Krispy Kreme location in Riyadh, via David Cannon.

Now this is just quite simple; Krispy Kreme Doughnuts are hands down the best doughnuts there are, anywhere! If you want to fight me about it, let me know and we will get you on the schedule for when I’m home on vacation. This franchise maintains its high quality of fresh products as it does in the states and it’s honestly impressive how it’s done here.

One thing that is interesting of the locations here is, like McDonald’s, there are so many, but they’re small locations. Unlike their U.S. counterparts, the locations here in Riyadh do not make the doughnuts in house. They are made at a nearby site and transported as needed the various locations. The fresh quality is still maintained, but without the tempting and iconic “Hot” sign. Which, for a fat kid like me, is essentially a “Bat Signal”.

Well there you have it! The five best American chain restaurants that have made their way to Saudi Arabia. Be sure to check out Part 2: The Worst 5, which will be published very soon!

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Life in the Kingdom: Instagram While They Pray

 

As I write this, it’s a little after 6:30 pm on a Friday evening in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The first day of the weekend is winding down and the Isha’a prayer can be heard outside from local mosque loud speakers.

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Photo of downtown Riyadh, taken from land mark building; Kingdom Centre

 

For the past thirteen months I’ve been living in the capitol city of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. I work for a company contracted by the U.S. Army to work on the “Modernization of the Ministry of the National Guard” project. This project is only a small part of Saudi Arabia’s “Vision 2030”, in which the new government hopes to stand up several modernization projects across the country. I hope to talk about “Vision 2030” in more depth at a later date.

 

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Street view of Kingdom Centre, downtown Riyadh

 

As I’m sure you can imagine, the cultural differences from the United States to Saudi Arabia are endless. To start, as you may have noticed at the beginning of this post, I referred to Friday as the first day of the weekend. Although you may start your weekend on Friday after work, the work week here is Sunday through Thursday. Friday is the Muslim holy day, and Saturday rounds out the weekend. This, coupled with a seven to eight hour time difference from your friends and family, really throws a kink in many aspects of life I consider normal.

 

The hardest thing for me to get used to, by far, are prayer times. Throughout the day you can hear the Muslim call to prayer ring out from the many mosques scattered across the city. Without fail, anywhere from ten to thirty minutes before prayer time, all businesses close. They open back up about ten minutes after the end of the prayer and this happens five times a day, seven days a week. It begins with Fajr, the dawn prayer, continues throughout the day with; Dhuhr, Asr and Maghrib, and ends with Isha’a, the night prayer I mentioned in the beginning. Other forms of salat (ritual Islamic prayers) occur as well, either weekly or for special occasions like Ramadan and Islamic festivals. You must plan all of your daily activities around these prayers. I’ve been caught many times, on my way to run errands or visit a restaurant, seeing stores dropping their blinds and locking their doors. You learn quickly to check prayer times before leaving home or work to prevent sitting in a parking lot for forty-five minutes. Unfortunately, due to many factors, sometimes you still end up browsing Instagram to kill the time until you can get your tacos.

 

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Nearby restaurants and grocery store closed for Dhuhr prayer on a Friday

 

Then there are differing religious laws, which are enforced by both police officers and religious authorities, that prohibit things that we as Americans can do freely every day. Like meeting your Tinder match (for you single folk) for a drink after work. Yeah, you just broke multiple laws doing that, if you were here. First off, alcohol of any sort is illegal here. My boss and I can’t even order isopropyl alcohol to use as a cleaning agent. Secondly, you aren’t allowed to be in the company of a female in public without being related to her or having a male member of her family being present. Both crimes are cause for being immediately arrested, which comes with prison time and/or harsh physical public punishment. Those punishments are comprised of; lashings, stoning, and extremity amputations including beheadings if it’s deemed a severe enough crime. All of those take place downtown in a spot us Westerners have nicknamed “Chop-chop Square,”. Yes, you read that last sentence correctly! Now these aren’t open to the general public, at least not anymore from what I’m told. Such events are by invitation only to Muslims of status in high political and religious standing, and those somehow linked to the criminal. Personally, I just stay away from that part of downtown no matter if it’s choppin’ day or not. Really puts being single in the USA into perspective, huh? Obviously both drinking and single men and women getting together still happens, and we may get into that when I’m a little surer that every keystroke isn’t being watched. Trust, me these guys will give the NSA a run for their money…. Oops!

 

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All in all, I haven’t felt threatened while being here which is good. Mostly because I make sure to respect their customs and abide by the directives my company security division issues. At the end of this I have no doubt that I will return home to my wife with a great new-found appreciation of the basic freedoms that we Americans have. Until then, I will try to learn what I can about this different culture and find things to enrich my time here and share with all of you.

 

-Author: David Cannon Follow David on Twitter