Roadside kitchen in Dubai transports Filipinos back to Manila's bustling streets

Open 24 hours, Jeepney Sizzlers Cafeteria is keeping Philippine street food culture alive in UAE

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In Dubai's busy Al Satwa neighbourhood, a group of Filipinos gather on the pavement outside a busy kitchen.

Jeepney Sizzlers Cafeteria, the sign above reads, as diners cram on to two long tables, one stranger after another sitting on eclectic monobloc chairs.

“One tapsilog, one chicken skin,” shouts the cashier from her small till on the pavement, commanding the staff from her station.

The mostly fried food is cooked in a meagre kitchen visible through a glass window.

Some guests eat in, if they're lucky enough to get a chair, while some wait roadside for their takeaways. Others breathe down the necks of other diners, subtly guilt tripping them into finishing their meals quicker.

It's a scene all too familiar to Deane Dizon, a Dubai resident, who says the vibe takes her back to the many roadside cafes in Manila.

“I grew up in the province, but we have an apartment at the centre of Manila where I went to university,” she says.

Dizon studied and lived in the Philippine capital's university belt, where streets brim with food carts serving a variety of fried and grilled snacks, mostly to busy students.

Jeepney Sizzlers Cafeteria gets its name from the ubiquitous minibus-like public utility vehicle in the Philippines, one of the most popular modes of transport in the country.

Swapping students with a mostly Filipino clientele – many of whom don't have the time to cook their own meals – the Dubai restaurant keeps service quick and the menu is easy.

One of the most popular snacks is the orange egg or kwek kwek in Tagalog. Hard-boiled quail eggs are dunked in an orange mixture of flour and annatto powder and then deep fried until the batter is crispy. They sell for a dirham a pop.

There's also kikiam, a deep-fried fishcake-inspired snack made of mince meat and vegetables; isaw, or grilled chicken intestines; and okoy, or deep-fried fritters made of small shrimps.

A self-service sauce station sits to one side, featuring sweet, spicy and tangy varieties.

“Every bite takes me back to my university days,” says Dizon, who has lived in Dubai for a little over two years.

The cafeteria, though, serves more than just snacks. Like most casual roadside cafes in Manila, the hugely popular dish tapsilog – a portmanteau of tapa (beef), sinangag (fried rice) and itlog (egg) – is also on the menu.

There is also pares, a braised beef stew paired with garlic fried rice and hot soup. For dessert, diners can indulge in turon, or deep fried banana spring rolls coated in caramelised sugar.

The cafe takes its Manila inspiration to another level by being open for 24 hours. Also, unlike many venues in Dubai, they serve the full menu at all times.

During the wee hours of the morning is when Jeepney's kitchen is really fired up, as the queue snakes along the pavement with late-shift workers looking to find solace in a hot bowl of lugaw, or rice porridge cooked with chicken and topped with hard-boiled egg, crispy garlic bits and spring onion.

Filipino street food elsewhere

The dishes at Jeepney Sizzlers Cafeteria aren't unique, however. Many Filipino restaurants across the UAE serve variations of such foods. For instance, Al Rigga Night Market in Deira, Dubai, is another go-to spot for Filipinos craving a taste of home.

Only open during UAE's cooler months, the carnival-style pop-up hosts dozens of food stalls dishing out nostalgic sweet and savoury treats from the country. Foodies will find even more options here, from the famous Filipino halo halo, a shaved ice dessert, to seasonal treats such as bibingka, a rice cake cooked in a terracotta pot lined with banana leaves.

But the night market closes at 2am.

Numerous Filipino joints are scattered across downtown Abu Dhabi, too, many of them near Hamdan street, one of the city's oldest neighbourhoods. Some also operate as late as 2am, but none go all night.

“There is something about eating at a table on the sidewalk, next to people you don't know that makes for an authentic street food experience,” says Dizon.

Updated: January 27, 2024, 5:31 AM