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 Morocco – Map it
24-39 Steinway St. – Astoria
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.