Yousif and Wali stroll back from a grocery store in South Slope to a kitchen tucked away behind a tiny convenience store where they work on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Sixth Street.
On a break from their gigs at the store, they stroll back in their baggy athletic shorts and tanks, enjoying every moment of their time outdoors on this sizzling summer evening before dinnertime. But when they walk through the convenience store and into the even smaller kitchen, it is clear that they have arrived home.
“I’m the real chef around here,” boasts Yousif, winking. Wali meanwhile gets right to work, quietly placing a mound of chopped onions atop the pan to simmer and removing already flattened beef stored between sheets of wax paper. He throws them, too, on the pan, sending spurts of smoke into the air above.
He hunches over the stovetop, carefully observing the meat alongside small piles of onions and chopped jalapenos as they brown, his wide frame blocking most of the stove and his sunglasses looking out at the rest of the kitchen, as they are perched behind his ears and against the nape of his neck. His shiny silver watch catches the light from time to time as he mixes the meat into a blubbery mush and diligently turns the onions and jalapenos. He paces one or two inches in either direction in his stylish and bright-white basketball sneakers, a sharp contrast to his otherwise tattered clothes and this rundown kitchen. He isn’t fazed by the fruit flies that hover over the surrounding kitchen appliances, nor by Yousif.
Yousif bounds in and out of the kitchen doing odds and ends, such as taking out the garbage—but mainly he just startles the petite black cat that prowls their kitchen. Finally, he enters and declares that they need music immediately, turning on the radio to a Hispanic station blasting Reggaeton tunes. Yousif now needs to speak even more loudly to make himself heard; “Wala wala” he shouts, “Wala wala,” communicating with his brother-in-law in Arabic across the already small space.
Soon he transitions to the role of Wali’s assistant—passing him an Italian salad dressing that Wali pours over the meat. Wali tops this off with a concoction resembling the all-American brown barbeque sauce and then a hefty sprinkle of Goya’s Latin-influenced Adobo powder. The meats and accompaniments of this “Philly” cheesesteak in the making now emit heavy scents and smoke that fill the small kitchen, a fume that is almost hard to breathe in without coughing. The mayhem of spices from all corners of the globe linger above him but Wali, undisturbed, meticulously layers squares of American cheese (that Yousif has fetched for him) atop the meat as the heroes brown in the mini-oven. The global cheesesteaks are almost done.
As Wali scoops the meat and vegetables off of the skillet and sculpts them onto the heroes (he has already dressed them with a heavy dose of mayonnaise), Yousif disappears. He is chatting outside the kitchen with the cashier of the convenience store: his cousin, whose father owns the shop.
When he returns, four cheesesteaks lie perfectly constructed—one for the cousin, one for Yousif, one for Wali, and one for Yousif’s sister, who is also Wali’s wife.
Wali and Yousif’s cousin, sporting a black polo with “Ferrari” emblazoned in red, exchange brief words in Arabic as Wali puts a cigarette in his mouth, ready to walk out the door. Roughly thirty lottery tickets piled on top of each other emerge as he plucks his car keys from his pocket. Holding the two subs, he walks out the door and, stepping proudly, toward his big black Escalade SUV, ready to bring dinner to his wife.