A meal fit for a prophet
There is a well hidden secret deep in the heart of the colorful Tenderloin, a delicious secret, a mythical restaurant where superlative couscous could be had for merely a few dollars. It is but an ephemeral mirage: one must know exactly where it is, and when to visit, in order to partake in the feast.
I heard about this place from Malik, who in turn got the tip from an Tunisian cab driver in the city. A few months ago, we went off on a mini wild goose chase to find this mysterious place where the local North African cab drivers get their couscous fix on Friday night. I've been meaning to write about this place since then, but with my crazy living and eating schedule I just hadn't quite managed to do it.
Last night, I was there again for dinner, this time with fellow SF food bloggers Amy and Alder, and their respective significant others Lee and Ruth. All we expected was a deliciously simple meal of home cooked couscous, but what we stumbled upon was a fabulous break-fast Ramadan meal, a meal fit for a prophet. What a lovely high in this downer week of epic proportion!
The restaurant is a pizza joint called Green Pizza, a bright, clean, and cheery space in a somewhat funky block in the Tenderloin. Half the room is taken up by the kitchen, what little remaining space is occupied by a few tables and large signs on the wall detailing the regular Pizza menu. I’ve never tried the menu, my singular goal at Green Pizza is the secret pot of couscous steaming in the back every Friday night.
I asked our gracious host Hakim how his couscous Friday nights have been doing. He explained to us that for the remainder of Ramadan, there would be couscous every night. His mother –on loan from his family in Tunisia- was the one doing the cooking. She also cooks the evening Ramadan meals for the nearby mosque. That was all we needed to hear, and we happily told him to bring us whatever magic his mother was conjuring up in that little kitchen.
First to arrived was the Brique –or Brik. Traditionally these are blocks of crispy pastry wrapped around a variety of fillings. Those last night were in cute little triangles, with the filling of gooey egg, chicken, peppers, parsley, and flavored with homemade Harissa (a ubiquitous North African condiment of spiced and crushed chillies). They were perfect, crispy on the outside, contrasting with the gooey soft yolk in the center. We made such loud admiring noises about the Harissa that Hakim brought us a Styrofoam cup full of it for us, to our absolute delight.
After polishing off a number of Briques, Hakim brought us something he called Salade Méchui, or Barbeque Salad, a plate of roasted sweet peppers, olives, and some tuna. It was so simple but tangy, smoky and just delicious.
Then we were on to the real stuff, roasted chicken with vegetables and Couscous Maison. The chicken was roasted with plenty of rosemary, and served on top of braised vegetable. It was very nice, if a bit cold. But the Pièce de Resistance of the night was the fluffy couscous served atop fork-tender braised chicken thighs. The chatter at the table went decidedly mum after we began to eat this. The medium grain couscous was fluffy yet toothsome in texture. The deep, dark, red sauce was intensely flavorful. There was no need for embellishment really, but I added the smoky Harissa to mine anyway. It was even more heavenly.
When our chatter picked up again after a long pause to obliterate the couscous, we were brought yet another plate, this time with dates, halved and stuffed with cream cheese, and pistachio baklava arranged beautifully on it. Eating a date –the dried fruit, not the pretty one in the little black dress across the table from you- is the traditional way to begin a Ramadan meal.
Hakim explained that the Prophet did it first that way, then speculated that it was probably done because one needed something sweet to quickly rejuvenate oneself after a whole day of fasting. I agreed with him, I winced just thinking about spicy harissa landing on an empty stomach. Traditions –no matter how foreign to us- often contain hidden wisdom such as this, we only need to look carefully and we will see.
Hakim probably didn’t think that we –who have likely been stuffing our faces all day- would want something sweet to begin, so he brought them as dessert. He said that traditionally they also drank buttermilk with the dates, and insisted that we try by bringing us five glasses and a big carton of buttermilk. I wasn’t so convinced by the virtue of drinking buttermilk straight up –nor was Alder for that matter- but we tried anyway. I could not bear to refuse such generosity. It was actually really good, the tangy and creamy buttermilk provided a perfect foil for the sweet date.
What a fabulous way to end our perfect meal! Hakim’s beautiful mother in her traditional hijaab reluctantly approached the table, beaming with pride, to ask –in her slow but perfectly good English- how we enjoyed her food. There was no need to answer -not in any spoken language at least- the satisfied smile on our faces said it all.
It’s a meal like this, in a place like this, that is what makes me happy to be living in San Francisco. Here, we do not treat Muslims as though they are closeted terrorists. Here, three Jews, a Buddhist, and a Christian can sit at table in a Hallal restaurant and be treated like family by observant Muslims, and generously fed the same meal served at their revered mosque. Here, we are all human beings. Here, we are all friends.
I know that many of my friends around the world are horrified by the seemingly incomprehensible choice that more than half our country have just made. The US is now seen everywhere as a fearsome giant bent on revenge and world domination. But here, in my beloved San Francisco, I am delighted to say, my America is alive and well.
219 Jones St., just south of Eddy
(serves couscous every Friday night, and every night from now until the end of Ramadan)
They don't serve alcohol, and -unlike Shalimar- do not allow BYO.
There is no sign in front of the restaurant, instead, look for a big sign at the Chinese place next door called Hung Phat.
PS. For those of you too squeamish to venture into the heart of the Tenderloin at night, you might take solace in the fact that just around the corner from the restaurant is a police station. Frankly I have always found the Tenderloin far more depressive than dangerous anyway. I’ve never felt threatened, only saddened by the decaying humanity in that neighborhood.