At Al Baik's Expo 2020 Dubai branch, I realise its power is in nostalgia

Saudi fast food chain knows how to create a moment through flavour

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So there I was at Expo 2020 Dubai unwrapping my takeaway box from Saudi fast-food chain Al Baik, the renowned fried chicken piping hot inside.

The fact I lined up for nearly an hour outside the shop in the Mobility District was small mercy compared with the hordes at their principal UAE outlet in The Dubai Mall.

But did the meal merit my patience?

On this occasion, I have to say, no, not really.

Sure, my chicken burger was made relatively well and the heavy seasoning sang, but I realised it missed the magic I have long associated with Al Baik.

Let me explain.

Al Baik’s menu is the kind you'd expect from any well-functioning fried chicken chain.

But even if the consistency and price point are spot on, all of that doesn’t explain the momentous welcome afforded to the brand when opening its first international outlet in The Dubai Mall in June.

How could thousands of people spanning a multitude of backgrounds, ranging from Eritrea and Sudan to Pakistan and Australia, be hungry enough to wait in line for hours for the arrival of a new restaurant?

Here is the rub of Al Baik’s appeal and it is not in the marinade.

Instead, it's the memories it invokes in many of us.

For myself, Al Baik is the juicy and tangy reward after the rigorous days performing Hajj in Saudi Arabia.

It was 2010 and at the end of the epic five days in Makkah, where millions of us walked an average of nearly 10 kilometres a day around various religious sites, that my friends and I made our way to Al Baik, located in a mall near to our hotel, for a celebratory dinner.

It remains one of my favourite memories: men, young and old and from various nationalities, laughing and even shedding a tear into our burgers and nuggets as we came to terms with one of the most important days of our lives.

For others who have been on the Hajj, they literally want a souvenir of that same moment.

My mum, who volunteered with an international Hajj delegation in 2017, recalls how some members stuffed their carry-on bags with chicken fillet sandwiches on their flights home to the US and Canada.

For Hassan 'Big Hass' Dennaoui the reason is closer to home.

The Saudi radio personality, now a Dubai resident, describes Al Baik as a slice of his childhood.

“I am not going to lie to you, I cried when I heard it was coming to Dubai,” he said.

“It reminds me of times after the Friday prayer when me and my father, may his soul rest in peace, line up in Al Baik for nearly an hour to get our order and head back home where the family and friends gathered to share a meal.”

Can these memorable moments be rekindled simply through the bite of an old favourite meal?

I told Big Hass that having Al Baik 11 years later at Expo 2020 Dubai left a lot to be desired.

What I didn’t confess was that it also made me terribly sad – not for the state of the burger itself, but the fact I have become so entrenched in the grind of daily life that the joy associated with that humble Al Baik dinner in Makkah has faded.

Turns out I didn't need to say any of that to him, as he turned to me and said: “Great memories never die.”

Updated: March 18, 2022, 6:35 PM