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At Aladin Trio, an overseas reflection of American fast food

Shawarma is joined by hot chicken, French fries, and burgers from Baghdad

Nashville hot chicken and "tornado fries"
Nashville hot chicken and "tornado fries"

Eleven years ago, an Associated Press story kicked off global news coverage declaring a “Burger boom in Baghdad.” The story documented a growing popularity of American fast foods in post-war Iraq, including fried chicken and pizza. A Baghdad resident quoted in the piece proclaimed, “We’re fed up with traditional food… We want to try something different.”

Place

Aladin Trio

2650 Jamacha Road #123, El Cajon

Sure enough, a current search for burger restaurants in the Iraqi capital suggests there are now some 200 burger restaurants, most locally operated, boasting names such as West Burger, Viking Burger, BBQ Burger and, aptly enough, Boom Burger. It almost makes you wonder what America’s beefiest export looks like, after passing through a cultural filter to show up halfway around the world. Anyway, it made me wonder. Which is how I would up eating a three-part lunch at Aladin Trio.


Some may have encountered this operation as a food truck parked by Jamacha Road liquor store in El Cajon, or previously doing business as Baba’s Trio, which used to post up in South Park. A few months back, Aladin Trio re-launched as a brick and mortar, just a short drive down Jamacha, in Rancho San Diego. It’s tucked into a shopping center headlined by Ralph’s and MacDonald’s, where the tidy, little counter shop is able to expand on its original fast food trio: shawarma, falafel, and Nashville Hot Chicken.


In this part of East County, shawarma and falafel are no more surprising a presence than that MacDonald’s, but halal hot chicken’s bound to stand out. It’s tough to imagine much variation with fried chicken strips glazed in spicy sauce ($11.49 with fries, $12.49 on a sandwich), and I didn’t find anything out of the ordinary. My chief complaint would be that Aladin’s hottest, “fire” spice level fell a couple rungs shy of the ghost pepper heights I’ve grown to expect.


A food truck turned counter shop in Rancho San Diego


When it came to Aladin Trio hamburgers, though, I didn’t have expectations, spicy or otherwise. I haven’t been to Iraq, and couldn’t tell you to what degree these Rancho San Diego burgers are representative of Baghdad tastes. However, the names of several burgers do correspond to Baghdad neighborhoods. Al-Jadriya features grilled onions and tomatoes; Al-Karadda adds grilled eggplant, and Al-Harthiya is topped with French fries. Meanwhile, the Baghdad burger offers grilled mushrooms, while the Aladin burger includes a portion of beef shawarma atop its burger patty. They range in price from $9 to $13.

Sponsored
Sponsored


The likes of shawarma and eggplant notwithstanding, what immediately stands out as different about most of these burgers is the choice of sauce used to dress them: “Aladin sauce or brown sauce.”


Brown sauce seems to be what the British know as HP Sauce. Made with tomato, tamarind, and date, I could best describe its flavor as a cross between Kansas City style BBQ and A1 steak sauce. Having tried my Al-Jadriya burger dressed with the tangy-sweet brown sauce, I’d recommend that anyone with American burger tastes stick to the second house option: Aladin sauce, made from the more familiar mixture of ketchup and mayonnaise.


Aesthetically, these differ from American-style burgers somewhat in terms of shape. In So Cal at least, we favor 3- to 4-inch diameter burgers, stacked vertically with thick (or double) patties and however many layers of toppings. Aladin’s have closer to a 6-inch diameter — roughly the size of a compact disc, if that reference still makes sense. On that wide, soft, sesame seed-coated bun sits a bigger yet flatter beef patty, with toppings spread across it so the whole thing sits flatter. I don’t think the dimensions affect it much aside from making it less photogenic. Honestly, it’s not too remarkable a burger to begin with, so a prettier picture might help.


An Al-Jadriya burger, with grilled tomatoes and onions


Actually, little on the Aladin Trio menu photographs well. Unless, ironically, you stick to potatoes. First, there’s a menu of kumpir ($9-$13), which are effectively Middle Eastern baked potatoes, made more interesting to look at, and eat, because they’re served with melted butter and mozzarella, and — just like the adjacent grilled cheese menu — stuffed with all of the above: falafel, hot chicken, burger patties, or shawarma.


Most interesting here though are the so-called “tornado fries.” Also known as tornado potatoes, these essentially take a spiral cut to a small potato, creating a long ribbon of starch that’s stabbed through with a skewer and then deep fried. Dusted with salt and paprika, the result eats like a long, winding, contiguous potato chip. I’d never encountered this before, and it turns out to be a South Korean street food innovation. Which suggests there’s more than just American fast food culture staring back at us from Baghdad anymore.

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Nashville hot chicken and "tornado fries"
Nashville hot chicken and "tornado fries"

Eleven years ago, an Associated Press story kicked off global news coverage declaring a “Burger boom in Baghdad.” The story documented a growing popularity of American fast foods in post-war Iraq, including fried chicken and pizza. A Baghdad resident quoted in the piece proclaimed, “We’re fed up with traditional food… We want to try something different.”

Place

Aladin Trio

2650 Jamacha Road #123, El Cajon

Sure enough, a current search for burger restaurants in the Iraqi capital suggests there are now some 200 burger restaurants, most locally operated, boasting names such as West Burger, Viking Burger, BBQ Burger and, aptly enough, Boom Burger. It almost makes you wonder what America’s beefiest export looks like, after passing through a cultural filter to show up halfway around the world. Anyway, it made me wonder. Which is how I would up eating a three-part lunch at Aladin Trio.


Some may have encountered this operation as a food truck parked by Jamacha Road liquor store in El Cajon, or previously doing business as Baba’s Trio, which used to post up in South Park. A few months back, Aladin Trio re-launched as a brick and mortar, just a short drive down Jamacha, in Rancho San Diego. It’s tucked into a shopping center headlined by Ralph’s and MacDonald’s, where the tidy, little counter shop is able to expand on its original fast food trio: shawarma, falafel, and Nashville Hot Chicken.


In this part of East County, shawarma and falafel are no more surprising a presence than that MacDonald’s, but halal hot chicken’s bound to stand out. It’s tough to imagine much variation with fried chicken strips glazed in spicy sauce ($11.49 with fries, $12.49 on a sandwich), and I didn’t find anything out of the ordinary. My chief complaint would be that Aladin’s hottest, “fire” spice level fell a couple rungs shy of the ghost pepper heights I’ve grown to expect.


A food truck turned counter shop in Rancho San Diego


When it came to Aladin Trio hamburgers, though, I didn’t have expectations, spicy or otherwise. I haven’t been to Iraq, and couldn’t tell you to what degree these Rancho San Diego burgers are representative of Baghdad tastes. However, the names of several burgers do correspond to Baghdad neighborhoods. Al-Jadriya features grilled onions and tomatoes; Al-Karadda adds grilled eggplant, and Al-Harthiya is topped with French fries. Meanwhile, the Baghdad burger offers grilled mushrooms, while the Aladin burger includes a portion of beef shawarma atop its burger patty. They range in price from $9 to $13.

Sponsored
Sponsored


The likes of shawarma and eggplant notwithstanding, what immediately stands out as different about most of these burgers is the choice of sauce used to dress them: “Aladin sauce or brown sauce.”


Brown sauce seems to be what the British know as HP Sauce. Made with tomato, tamarind, and date, I could best describe its flavor as a cross between Kansas City style BBQ and A1 steak sauce. Having tried my Al-Jadriya burger dressed with the tangy-sweet brown sauce, I’d recommend that anyone with American burger tastes stick to the second house option: Aladin sauce, made from the more familiar mixture of ketchup and mayonnaise.


Aesthetically, these differ from American-style burgers somewhat in terms of shape. In So Cal at least, we favor 3- to 4-inch diameter burgers, stacked vertically with thick (or double) patties and however many layers of toppings. Aladin’s have closer to a 6-inch diameter — roughly the size of a compact disc, if that reference still makes sense. On that wide, soft, sesame seed-coated bun sits a bigger yet flatter beef patty, with toppings spread across it so the whole thing sits flatter. I don’t think the dimensions affect it much aside from making it less photogenic. Honestly, it’s not too remarkable a burger to begin with, so a prettier picture might help.


An Al-Jadriya burger, with grilled tomatoes and onions


Actually, little on the Aladin Trio menu photographs well. Unless, ironically, you stick to potatoes. First, there’s a menu of kumpir ($9-$13), which are effectively Middle Eastern baked potatoes, made more interesting to look at, and eat, because they’re served with melted butter and mozzarella, and — just like the adjacent grilled cheese menu — stuffed with all of the above: falafel, hot chicken, burger patties, or shawarma.


Most interesting here though are the so-called “tornado fries.” Also known as tornado potatoes, these essentially take a spiral cut to a small potato, creating a long ribbon of starch that’s stabbed through with a skewer and then deep fried. Dusted with salt and paprika, the result eats like a long, winding, contiguous potato chip. I’d never encountered this before, and it turns out to be a South Korean street food innovation. Which suggests there’s more than just American fast food culture staring back at us from Baghdad anymore.

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