James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

All Grilled Cheese Sandwiches Are Not Created Equal

Photo by: Hannah Wickes

All Grilled Cheese Sandwiches Are Not Created Equal

Ma’ajouqa in Tripoli

Google Maps doesn’t work in the narrow alleys of a Levantine souq, nor can it be trusted to identify nameless street-food spots hidden in marketplace arches.

Tripoli, Lebanon’s second-biggest city, has a strong reputation among ravenous foodies. Pistachio-covered everything at Hallab 1881 and spicy fish sandwiches at takeout counters in the Mina neighborhood are mandatory stops for northbound Beirutis.

My travel companion and I decide to stick to our attempt at adult palates and save pistachio-rolled ice cream for a mid-morning snack. The breakfast recommendation for the day comes with the scrawled last name of a sandwich vendor: Al-Daboussi.

Five different sets of directions from bystanders leads us progressively closer to the alley we’re after. The last gentleman we ask has a particular spark of excitement in his eyes and personally walks us over to the souq food stand.

There, we behold the stand’s blinding LED bulbs, a dusty framed picture of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, an unplugged Pepsi fridge, and people you can never be sure are really employees or simply regulars who hop behind the counter from time to time. On the right, a man appearing to be the boss assembles pea-sized Moroccan couscous in flatbread pockets and on the left, there is the work station for the shop’s rosewater-soaked ma’ajouqa cheese sandwich.

All grilled-cheese sandwiches are not created equal.

The vendor, in his pinstriped apron, gets working around the coffee table-sized metal griddle. A bowl of snow-white cheese chunks is brought over. At the top of the griddle, a reserve of toasted semolina paste is ready for action, and on standby, there is a glass breeq—a Lebanese water jug—filled with rosewater syrup.

When the attendant decides the griddle is hot enough for searing, swift knife-work transforms the cheese chunks into layers of uneven slices. The warmth from below starts to tighten the cheesy mass. His spatula first chops, then rhythmically folds and flips the melt to even it out. The rosewater syrup anoints the semolina putty, and it all becomes one with the elastic cheese-wad. To finish, the grilled cheese lands in a cloud of icing sugar.

A sesame-studded ka’ak (round flatbread) is prodded open to make room for the briny, floral schmear. Here we have a syrupy toastie for breakfast. Mellow strings of dairy carry the sweetness of the submersed rose. The toasted sesame pocket satisfies.

You won’t find this place on Google Maps. If you’re in Tripoli, just ask for Al-Daboussi’s.

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