Coordinating across two continents, three Egyptian emigrants dish up authentic foods from their homeland in Suncrest Towne Centre. #eatlikeanegyptian
When Karim Abbara moved from Cairo to Morgantown in 2016, he immediately fell in love with the city. He worked at a local restaurant—quite different from the pharmacy work he’d been doing in Egypt with his sister Ranim, but in line with the love of cooking they’d shared from a young age. Abbara called Ranim and her husband, Ahmed Abdelrehim, in Egypt, extolling the beauty and virtues of West Virginia.
“He was like, ‘Dude, you’ve got to check it out. It’s an amazing place,’” Abdelrehim recalls. “I came in late December 2016, and I fell in love with Morgantown as well. It’s small, but not too small. You’ve got all the scenery and the beauty of the place. West Virginia in general is just beautiful.”
Morgantown was a lush contrast to the densely packed city of Cairo, which has the same high-stress energy as many large cities in the States.
“Think of it as New York, and multiply the population by three,” Abdelrehim says. “It’s a concrete jungle. I love it, but it’s just full of buildings. And Morgantown is the exact opposite of that. The people are way more relaxed and easy to talk to. It’s a very cool vibe.”
All three appreciated the relative peace of a much smaller community that has immediate access to natural beauty. The international character of WVU also helped Morgantown feel more diverse than most smaller cities, especially in West Virginia.
“You’ve got a lot of Arab students, Indian students, Iranian students. It’s a bit metropolitan, for a small town,” Abdelrehim says. “So this really worked well for us, opening an Egyptian restaurant when the Egyptian population in Morgantown is about … 10 people or so.” He laughs out loud at the realization.
A Cuisine Apart
To understand the nature of Egyptian food, Abdelrehim says you have to understand the troubled history of the nation.
“Egypt has a long history of invasion, by the Greeks, the Turks, the British. So every time an invasion happens, the conqueror comes in with their food, and we put our own unique spin on it.”
The result is a culinary tradition that looks similar to other Mediterranean cuisine, but with a distinctly Egyptian flair. Falafel, for instance, is almost universally made from chickpeas. But in Egypt, it consists primarily of fava beans, lending a different texture and taste.
Shawarma is very similar to the Greek gyro; the meat is roasted and carved from a rotisserie spit and used as the primary component of a sandwich or wrap. But the Greeks focused on the tzatziki sauce, leaving the meat itself rather bland. Egyptian shawarma contains beef that has been marinated after carving, infusing lots of the flavor into the meat.
Cairo 2 Go opened its doors in September 2017, billing itself as the first Egyptian fast-casual restaurant in the U.S. While Morgantown has a number of Mediterranean restaurants, Cairo 2 Go is the only specifically Egyptian eatery anywhere around—the next closest is in Washington, D.C.
“This is what we pride ourselves on: We are truly authentic,” Abdelrehim says. “This is food you get when you come to Egypt. It’s not the Americanized version. It’s not the Taco Bell of Egypt. If you want to spare yourself a trip and just try the food, Cairo 2 Go is where you should come.”
If online reviews are any indication, Cairo 2 Go is finding success in Morgantown. Its Yelp rating is currently 4.5 stars and, after nearly 150 reviews on Google, the restaurant maintains a nearly perfect rating: 4.7 stars.
“Being unique is a challenge, because we’re the only Egyptian restaurant in town,” Abdelrehim says. “It’s not a very familiar cuisine. Yet this is also part of our intrigue. People like to try new stuff.”
Underlying the success of these three Egyptian emigrants is a more disconcerting story. In July of 2018, Abdelrehim learned that his mother in Cairo was very ill. He booked a trip home to see her as quickly as possible, packing only the summer clothing he would need. She died six days after his arrival.
Abdelrehim applied for a renewal of his visa and, even though he was running a business in Morgantown, his application was designated as requiring “further processing.” He still has not heard anything from the U.S. government regarding this status.
“I expected a two- or three-month wait,” Abdelrehim says. “I’ve been waiting for seven months now.” He is currently stranded in Cairo, separated from his wife, Ranim, and her brother Abbara, who take care of the daily operation of Cairo 2 Go. We conducted this interview via video conference.
Fortunately, Abdelrehim, who calls himself “the worst cook you ever laid eyes on,” handles the business side of the restaurant, and much of that can be handled remotely. Nevertheless, he misses his family and is greatly anticipating his return to the states.
Diners looking for something new will be pleasantly surprised by a menu that ranges from baba ghanoush, or grilled eggplant, to bechamel pasta, an Egyptian lasagna, and basboosa, a semolina dessert. With several vegan options and substitutes like chicken available to those avoiding red meat, even diners with discerning dietary preferences will find something to try. Many of the dishes are served in sealable, microwaveable containers, making them perfect for leftover reheating.
written by J. Kendall Perkinson