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Tasting Hossam’s Ritual

I was a little alarmed when I walked into Little Morocco on Friday and saw that every single chair was empty.

Wasn’t this cabbie Hossam‘s go-to spot for couscous? Hadn’t he told me to make sure I got there early in case they ran out?

I wandered inside, breezing past the “CLOSED” sign on the door, and watched the cook tell three men who’d rushed in before me to come back at 2pm, when the restaurant would re-open.

By 2pm, Friday prayers would be over at the Al-Iman Mosque across the street – and by then Little Morocco would be flooded with devout couscous eaters.

“Oh, man,” the three men said.

Oh, barf, I thought. I’d been waiting for four long days to try the couscous with lamb and vegetables that Hossam had recommended during our ride from Spanish Harlem to Midtown. What was another half hour?

I moved my purse out of the way as the three men hustled out the door. A fourth lingered behind, trading whispers in Arabic with the cook, who was sealing the top of an aluminum pie tin stuffed with what looked like vegetables and garbanzo beans and couscous. I sidled over their way.

“Could I have some couscous, too?” I asked.

“Do you take it with lamb or chicken?” the cook said, “Will you take it to go? We’re not open yet. You know, it’s our holy day.”

“Of course.” I would take it however I could get it. I was starving.

He wrapped my lamb and couscous in two plastic bags, along with a paper cup full of extra sauce and a thimble-sized container of house-made harissa (which popped open and spilled all over everything during the walk to Astoria Park).

By the time I found a bench in the shade with a partial view of the East River, my hands were shaking with hunger and excitement.

I carefully unwrapped the harissa-coated mess, wiped off a plastic spoon and filled it with couscous and chick peas. I took a second bite, this time with a piece of carrot. Everything tasted overcooked and under-seasoned.

Yes, there was cumin, and, yes, there was cardamom and plenty of black pepper, but both carrots and squash reminded me of the soft, boiled-beyond-flavor versions I hated as a kid. The chick peas must have been simmering in the same pot.

It was only when I got to the leg of lamb that I understood why someone might order this lackluster stew: the meat was tender, falling off the bone in that slow-cooked way, its fat melting into its pink-purple flesh. The meat anchored the dish, but it couldn’t compensate for its dull sidekicks. I was so sorry all the harissa had been lost – maybe it could have saved the couscous.

What was it about this couscous that Hossam liked so much? Was it the meat? The price? (For $10, it could easily feed two.) Was its blandness somehow comforting?

Maybe it was the ritual. Maybe it was the act of digging into semolina with people who share his faith and his language – or the desire to taste something familiar, thousands of miles from home. Ritual or no ritual, I wished I’d tried the merguez instead.

Little MoroccoMap it
24-39 Steinway St. – Astoria
Tel. 718-204-8118
Couscous (Fridays only): $10. All other dishes cost less than $10.
Note: Little Morocco is locally famous for its merguez (Moroccan sausage) sandwich, which was voted the best in the city by The New York Times in 2008 and costs $6.

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  1. Hmm, well La Maison de CousCous is no more, which was my fave in NYC. Cafe Mogadar has a pretty decent version but it’s more pricey and I could never imagine in such a place (Demi Moore has eaten there, haha). You may have to go to DC to a restaurant called Marrakesh. $30 for 7 courses, served family style all eaten by hand from one big platter after platter:

    – A pot of water, basin and soap is brought to each individual to wash their hands.
    – Mezza (different salads such as tabouli, babaganoush, etc).
    – Bastilla (layers of chicken, phyllo dough, nuts, cinammon, spices topped w/ powdered sugar).
    – Lemon chicken (by far the juiciest chicken of my life)
    – You get a choice between Beef Skewers or Honeyed Lamb. I’ve. Never. Had. The. Beef. The. Lamb. Is. Too. Damn. Good.
    – Annoying belly-dancing at some point.
    – Veggies over couscous, very good.
    – Bowl of fresh fruit.
    – Moroccan Mint Tea.

    • I meant to say “I could never imagine a cabbie eating in such a place…”

      • Cafe Mogadar that is…

        • My favorite part of your review is the annoying bellydancing. That restaurant should hire you to do PR. I’ve heard good things about Cafe Mogador – I’m saving it for a splurge.
          Meanwhile, I had another reader tell me about this place: http://www.taginedining.com/ which I’m going to try to get to before I go to Berlin. I refuse to believe there is no good, reasonably priced couscous to be found in NYC.

          • Haha, it’s fun when you’re younger and you also go to… other “dancing” establishments. Now it’s just annoying and the “others” are sad.

            Tagine is alright. More annoying belly-dancing, decor’s kinda glum. The kefta tagine is decent.

            Cafe Mogadar has a great brunch btw, very well priced.

  2. I spent two weeks in Morocco and didn’t find a vegetable that wasn’t cooked until near baby food, so maybe that’s how it’s prefered there. But I’ve been known to project my desires on other cuisines as well.

    While I’ve never tried the cous cous at Little Morocco there merguez and falafel sandwiches are both great washed down with a mint tea. The guys there have always been incredibly nice to me. Unrelated: Ever tried the hummus up the block at Duzan? One of my favorites in NYC (and cheap!).

    Surprisingly, I prefered the food in Tunisia to Morocco. If you ever chat up a Tunisian cabbie, ask where you can get some lablabi in this city. I’m desperate! There used to be a place called Carthage on Steinway but it seems to have gone the way of the original Carthage…

    • Well, that explains a lot. I feel for Moroccan vegetables then. I’ll be on the lookout for lablabi…
      Meanwhile the Sudanese falafel in Berlin is out of sight. If you ever head out this way, you’ve have to try it.