Address: Corner of Sovietskaya and Kievskaya Streets
Price: Shawarma – 80 som, Gamberger – 60 som
One of the Bishkek’s most popular street food joints is a kiosk on the corner of Sovietskaya and Kievskaya called Altyn Dan (in Kyrgyz, Алтын ден), which means “Golden Grain.” Everyday, no matter the time, no matter the weather, the place is mobbed with a ravenous and frenetic crowd of young people, most of them students. It is quite a sight. They are not so much waiting to get to the ordering window as they are actively elbowing themselves to the front.
And I’ve always wondered why. I’ve passed this joint for four months now, always shaking my head at how there is always — and I mean always — a mob of people. Good grief. So finally, yesterday, my curiosity got the best of me. I joined the mob.
Altyn Dan has a very limited menu – you can choose beef or chicken, shawarma (a Middle Eastern burrito of sorts), or gamberger. At this point, I should mention that a gamberger literally translates to “hamburger,” but the difference between the two terms is as stark as ice-cream and gelato (even though the direct translation of the Italian term is indeed “ice-cream.”) A gamberger is basically all the ingredients of a shawarma within a round, fluffy bread. In contrast, a hamburger is a meat patty, with just few slivers of tomatoes and lettuce and pickles and condiments, and two buns. To be sure, there are in fact Western-style hamburger joints in Bishkek, such as the Kyrgyz fast-food chain, Begemot. But even Begemot calls their hamburgers gambergers. The point is, the terms are not synonymous. (And by the way, the difference between ice-cream and gelato is that gelato has less butterfat and air, making it much denser than its American counterpart.)
I marveled at the three people who took orders at the window. No doubt they have the hardest job of all, managing the masses. But they were on the ball. One woman was flanked by one man who sliced the shawarma from the monster juicy spit of beef (which, by the way, looked like a tubular punching bag, it was so huge), and another man who assembled the meats and condiments into the buns and lavash breads. There were no order numbers, no pen and paper, no repeating the order back to you, no small talk with customers. Just, “What do you want? Beef or chicken?”
For research purposes, I ordered both the beef gamberger and the beef shawarma. I got it in less than five minutes, each in separate plastic bags. Good stuff. I made my way through the crowd, feeling a sense of accomplishment. I felt like I had completed a rite of passage in Bishkek. Look at me, I’m a local! I picked up a paper cup of soda from a nearby Coca Cola stand to pair with my street food, and strode down the sidewalk.
I then found an empty red bench to consume my Bishkek goods (like a local.) I lay the two monster-sized sandwiches beside me. Hmm, I think I’ll go with the gamberger first.
And then…disappointment. It was cold! Based on the humongous spit of meaty goodness I saw through the window, I was expecting some sort of hot and hearty meal. But the bread, which was fluffy and chewy in its own right, was just too much. There was too much bread. The first five bites was just gnawing through it before I could get to the good stuff inside, which consisted of shredded carrots, pickles, lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers, and slathered yoghurt sauce and some kind of sweet catsup sauce. The shredded beef was delicious, though. Really good. The sauce was a bit sweet. But that bread…it left this kind of film on the roof my mouth. I should’ve just ordered meat straight from the spit.
I set it aside. Next, shawarma. Again, I was struck by its monster size. It was a Chipotle burrito. And again…cold! This is not surprising, since the ingredients are exactly the same, except for the lavash flatbread that encloses it. Again, it was too much bread. I gnawed on it for halfheartedly for a while, but then stopped. I set it aside. And then stared into space. That was a bust. What just happened here?
Completely disheartened, and confused, the next day I asked three locals — a Tajik, a Russian, and an American expat — what they thought of this place. Why, why, why?, I kept asking. What’s the draw? And you know what, their answer surprised me. But it was so obvious.
Why is the place so popular? Because, Eirene, the portions are BIG. For the price of one Chipotle burrito back home in the States, you can get four-and-a-half Chipotle-burrito-sized shawarmas here in Bishkek. For a little over a buck, you can get a very generously stuffed gamberger. As my Tajik friend said, many places in Bishkek usually skimp on the meat, and the fillings, to save a quick buck. But Altyn Dan just packs it all in — bread, meat, condiments. Too bad I didn’t find the bread particularly pleasing. But when you’re a poor student, this place will do the job. Even if you’re not a poor student, this place hits the spot, if you’re just looking for something quick and filling. It’s a classic case of Bigger is Better.
And I recognize the value in that. And, you know what, so did my roommates when I came home that afternoon with leftovers.