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Tagine Dream, Halal Burger Reality

“This food is really bad,” my friend Lilian said, “What are you going to do?”

“I have to write about it,” I said.

“How?” She told me about a good-hearted New York food blogger who’d found a roach in his sushi last summer.

Knowing that his words had the power to shut that Japanese restaurant down, he somehow managed to craft a post that provided clues to the place he was talking about, but he refused to name it outright.

I couldn’t think of a similar way to artfully dodge the fact that the tagine that cabbie Mohammed had led us to was a big disappointment.

During a ride through midtown Manhattan last week, Mohammed told me he’d first tasted what’s now his favorite New York tagine at a place owned by a man named Tangawi in 1998 (he couldn’t think of the name of the restaurant). He’s been going there ever since.

Determined to track down the place, I trekked north and south on Steinway Street in Astoria, searching for Mr. Tangawi. When two guys in a halal deli told me where I could find his Moroccan restaurant (down to the address!), I almost started jumping up and down.

Mohammed’s hangout turned out to be less restaurant, more sandwich counter and all men, none of whom were eating tagine and all of whom were speaking Arabic.

Every one of them glanced at me with a look that suggested I was in the wrong place before shifting their attention back to plates of halal burgers and fries.

Maybe they’re just tired of tagine, I thought. I was so excited to try it, I couldn’t wait for Lilian to get there.

It looked like a beautiful plate of food: bone-in baby lamb, green olives, and a pile of saffron rice – for only $9.50! The cabbie had been right about one thing: the food was cheap.

The baby lamb – tender enough to cut with a spoon – wasn’t bad (how could it be?), but it had been warming in a hotel pan. No covered ceramic pot had been involved in the making of this tagine.

The result? Its flavors were spread out, not concentrated, missing the harmony and intensity that comes with cooking in clay (the way tagine is traditionally prepared).

The saffron rice had the aftertaste of instant. Had Uncle Ben had something to do with it? I didn’t know, but when Lilian got hers she shook her head and agreed. Saffron (tumeric?) had lent it some color but none of its flavor.

Harrira (Moroccan beef and tomato soup) wasn’t much better.

“That soup looks good!” Lilian said when she walked in.

“It’s not,” I told her. It was full of gristle and fat, short on salt, missing spice.

“I used to come here, actually, and the food was good,” Lilian said, “I don’t know what happened. Maybe they changed the owner?”

She marched up to the counter and asked the guy who dished up our tagine.

“No, it’s the same owner,” he said, “But we’ve changed chefs a few times.”

If the empty plates around the shop offered any clues, the new chef’s specialty leans closer to halal burgers than it does to tagine.

Halal Sandwich Shop
25-61 Steinway St. – Astoria, Queens
Tel. 718-726-9262
Cash only

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  1. Not all adventures are great, unfortunately… :)

  2. Okay, this is just weird. I’ve had this same cab driver, and also asked him his favorite place for Moroccan food (though I was drunk). At least I think he’s the same guy. It’d be weird if another Moroccan cabbie named Mohammed suggested the same place.

    Anyway, my Mohammed suggested some sort of reformed minced heart kebab here, and was pretty upfront that this was just a sandwhich spot. Maybe those are the things to try. Anyway, I can vouch for Little Morocco up the road being delicious.

    • Hmmm. Do you recognize him from the picture on this page? http://taxigourmet.com/2010/03/03/a-tagine-lead-and-an-airport-ritual/

      I’ll give Little Morocco a try next time I’m in the neighborhood – thanks for the tip, Pork Chop.

      • Looks like the same guy, but it was a while back and I mostly was looking at the back of his head.

        Anyway, Nomad in the E. Village has some decent tagines, but it’s a nice-ish restaurant. Think the chef might be Algerian. I’ve heard good things about Jour Et Nuit in Astoria too. What I’m really looking for is a Tunisian place though…

        • Haven’t heard of Nomad. I’ll keep it in mind. I keep hearing good things about the Moroccan at Cafe Mogador (Soho, I think). I’ve heard terrible things about Jour et Nuit, actually – who knows? Meanwhile, I’ll keep my eyes open for Tunisian…

  3. This is a good post, but I was wondering how do I suscribe to the RSS feed?