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Many of you may know Hajj Nasr, one of the smallest sandwhicherias in Lebanon. You must have come across it, even if you haven't actually tried it. Nestled in the heart of Achrafieh's busy streets, Hajj Nasr, known for his abrupt character, welcomes people who wait in line for their turn to grab a hold of whatever is remaining in the kitchen to make. I reach there, stopped and felt mesmerized to walk into this small set up that has been serving sandwiches for over 32 years. I was happy to have experienced this place before it closes down in a couple of months. I suggest you go try it out for yourself...
Facing AiZone at ABC Achrafieh's Mall, Hajj Nasr, the famous Hajj Nasr has been rolling meat and poultry sandwiches since 1975 in this small shop. At the very end is a counter where Mr. Hajj Nasr makes his famous sandwiches at the speed of light, starting at four in the morning onwards until nothing is left to be sold. I arrived to a place, where dozens of accustomed customers were already waiting in line, just craving for a sandwich. Anything that is available is fine as long as it's made by Hajj Nasr. I stood, amazed, astonished, not knowing what to think or what to do. I was trying to grasp the meaning and importance of this place to many. In a moment of trance, people passed me one after the other, until I snapped out of it, ready to discover what's going on inside. I pushed myself in with confidence.
"Hello sir," I said to the man standing inside, "Can I ask you couple of questions?"Al Hajj, opening the grill and without looking at me said "NO"Everybody laughed and a customer looked at me smiling said: "Hay2tak jdid houn" (You seem to be new around here).
It seems like it's a known fact here that taking pictures is not allowed. Then, Al Hajj continuing to roll those sandwiches for the hungry clientele looked at me and said: "At this time, especially when I'm close to closing down, I start seeing all customers as enemies. Don't waste my time," he said sarcastically. Everybody laughed again, but knowing me, I grabbed the opportunity to ask more questions.
- Are you closing down soon? Yes, he said, the building has been sold and I don't feel like working anymore. I'm going to Los Angeles to spend time with my kids. They have a hooka lounge I'm going to help them manage it.
- Which year did you open? I've been here since 1975. 32 long years at your service
- What is your name? Hajj, and the person inside is Hanna. We are both "H"s
- Why don't you move to another location? You are doing lots of money. I don't care about money anymore, I've done enough of it.
- What time do you open? 4am, you know there are people who work and want to eat early, not like you fine people who wake up at 11am and come asking questions to busy men like me.
The shop has nothing extraordinary to highlight. The walls are covered in stainless steel, promotional stickers fill the doors and at the end the famous counter, to the right, is the list of sandwiches:
- Chicken liver, lamb liver, Thal, Sanasel, Eggs and makanek, Eggs and soujok, Eggs and ham, Eggs and cream, Roast beef, chicken, stuffed vine leaves, soujok, makanek, kafta, basterma, tongue, labneh, chocolate... and more
The menu, handwritten and posted on the right wall is hard to be reached. When it was my turn to order, El Hajj looked at me and said, what can I give you? I answered with a shy smile: "You tell me sir. This is my first time here, what should I order?"
He smiled sarcastically and said: "You don't have much of a choice - there's kafta and chicken liver so don't think too much."
While waiting, I enjoyed listening to Hanna - if this is his name- welcoming his guests with a unique vocabulary:
- Isteze, keef fine se3dak?
- Bi2amrak Ana!
- Hadde m3allemna!
- 3tine 5000L.L
- Kafta men 3aineyye
- Be3tezer 3a te2khir m3allme
- Thank you m3alme
- Merci beaucoup
- Khod hay sandwiche 3tiya la yalle warak
Helping Hanna is "the hand". I'm assuming his name is Nassif. You don't see a face, but just five fingers appearing through a window and quickly disappearing. Hanna calls out for some things and he delivers in a second...
I received two sandwiches:
- Kafta: The kafta is produced in a special way. A large container of kafta is always handy where Hanna grabs a chunk to spread it in the double layer of bread. It then enters a toaster, as is, to be cooked and toasted. Few minutes later, mayonnaise, tomato and pickles are added before rolling the sandwich and delivering it to the customer. This sandwich's taste is unique reflecting what real street food is but for me its too fatty, too oily and too spicy.
- Chicken liver: Inside a soft and tender bread, chicken liver are combined with some tomatoes, pickles and coupled with a spread of garlic flavored mayonnaise.
Nothing impressive or extraordinary about the sandwiches. They are fatty, oily, too spicy and unevenly wrapped, but it's the simplicity that is worth trying for only 3,000L.L/piece. Don't expect super cleanliness, the place is a mess, and honestly nobody cares. Hundreds of thousands of people have eaten and enjoyed this place and its sandwiches for decades. Trying to take more pictures for you to understand this place, I approached to shoot the sandwiches being rolled. Here Hanna stopped what he was doing and said: "Do you all think I'm like an animal behind bars at the zoo? Hundreds come taking my pictures as if I was some miracle. I don't understand you people..."
El Hajj looks at me and tells me that almost all politicians you see on TV today have passed by this small place. "I know them and have met them. This little place is a legendary location."I asked him, "So, now that I ate from your sandwiches, would I be a politician?" I continued, making him smile as I take more pictures and ask more questions."Yes my dear, it's a package. Now you started with two sandwiches, while leaving make sure you steal something and you're almost there to reaching your goal to become a politician."We all laughed out loud, and after paying my dues, I stood up on the sidewalk to eat like everybody else.
A friend if mine, whom I met over there, followed me out with another sandwich - the dessert this time: Cream, bananas and chocolate he says is exquisite.You still have two months left to meet Hajj Nasr. You'll surely meet a special character, in a unique setting and most importantly be sharing a part of Beirut's history to talk about with your kids.
Categories: Street Food