House No 51, Al Bastakiya, Burdubai, Dubai (map); +971 (4) 354 0705; localhousedubai.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: Condiments outshine the dry, flavorless camel patty in this burger
Want Fries with That? Comes with fries that'll be the highlight of your meal
Price: Camel burger w/cheese, AED 40; w/sautéed mushrooms, spicy caramelized onions, and a fried egg, + AED 15
The rage that is camel burgers hit Dubai two years ago when Arabic restaurant Local House slid a camel patty into the hollow pocket of a khameer, traditional, pita-shaped leavened bread studded with sesame seeds. This innovative burger move garnered adulation from most major newspapers around the city, with practically every article raving about a surprisingly juicy patty that grunts back at misconceptions about camel meat being tough. Local House keeps their method of tenderizing the meat into a flavorful, juicy puck of meat a secret, but I read that they start off by cherry picking the youngest of camels.
Besides tasting good, the burger wouldn't clog arteries; at gulfnews.com the assistant manager claimed that "the best part of the burger is that the patty is made of zero fat meat that also has no cholesterol." And for those who didn't care about the burger's health implications, maybe they'd be drawn to it out of boredom; as the (now ex-) restaurant manager said in his interview with CNN World, "Everyone's bored of beef and chicken."
Twenty eight months after launch, I decided to make a camel patty pilgrimage to Local House in the old Bastakiya district. Would I get to ride the same juicy, fat-free, exceedingly creative camel journey that the food reporters had embarked on?
Sadly not. This camel ride was far bumpier than the official reviews led on. The initial jolt was sticker shock after opening the menu; the price of the cheapest of camel burgers had now soared to double the price of what had been reported a year earlier, AED 20 (about $5.45). To order a basic camel burger with cheese, you would have to shell out nothing less than AED 40 (about $10.90), and for AED 15 more (about $4.09), you could cover your camel with sautéed mushrooms, spicy caramelized onions, and a fried egg. Having come this far in the blazing afternoon heat for a taste of the desert, I swallowed my dismayed grunts and opted for the trio of toppings that felt worthy of my first camel experience.
The second shocker was when the burger arrived in a regular, store-bought sesame bun, nothing like the images of a charismatic, toasty brown khameer bread I had seen in a blog review online. The restaurant confirmed that my experience was not an isolated case of khameer being sold out—the only way to get this burger now is within the halves of an ordinary sesame bun.
Biting into the burger was a challenge. Serves me right for ordering every possible topping available, but what made matters worse was that the plain Jane bun had not been toasted, causing the pillowy bun base to split into two under the weight of the elements. When I did manage to successfully squish the burger into a first bite, I enjoyed the sautéed mushrooms and caramelized onions smothered in cheddar cheese, so much so that I almost forgot that the goal was to focus on the camel meat. The cabbage, carrots, and lettuce on the underside of the patty provided a pleasant crunch, and the 'burger sauce'—potentially a bit of mayo and ketchup?—was used in quiet moderation. My only toppings disappointment was that the yolk of the fried egg was a fully set omelet, not the runny, explosive globe I would have hoped to crack over the patty.
The camel patty was made at the restaurant, a coarse ground mass that is probably a tad heavier than a quarter pounder (the restaurant manager fiercely refused to confirm the weight, as that was yet another trade secret they were forbidden to reveal). Strangely, the flavor of the patty had not surfaced through the toppings. I would have assumed that camel meat has a strong enough, potentially gamey flavor, to hold its own against most toppings. But that's not the case with this burger. I had to nibble off a morsel of camel patty in isolation to pin down what it tasted like, and a nibble later, the verdict was that it didn't taste like much of anything. This was a disc of highly overcooked meat that bore a very faint resemblance to dried-out mutton. The scattered cumin seeds studded between the coarsely ground meat seemed to have lost their flavor somewhere in the prolonged cooking process; they failed to impart any fragrant depth to the meat. The deep brown crust around the patty had the cracked texture of land that had faced severe drought for months on end, with insides that were equally dehydrated of meaty juices. It wasn't long before I discreetly placed the tasteless patty aside and just enjoyed "condiments on a bun" without any chewy juiceless distraction.
While the burger wasn't the desert dream I had imagined, the fries included alongside the burger provided an inviting oasis of perfectly fried, crunchy flavor with moist potato insides. Ironically, frozen fries crisped up and flavored at the restaurant were the highlight of my exotic meal, surpassing both the burger and the lukewarm dates yogurt shake, the latter of which was nothing more than an elusive mirage of the refreshing drink I had hoped it would be.
Contrary to the camel hype from last year, the camel burger served at Local House may not be the solution to counter the monotony of ubiquitous chicken and beef patties. That said, the experience of eating a camel burger if you're visiting Dubai is still one that is worth having, partly because Local House is situated in one of the most traditional and historic quarters of the city...but mostly so you can have bragging rights about having tasted camel meat with friends back home.