I've made four trips to Hor Al Anz since I moved back last year:
Trip #1: Single minded purpose to hunt out Al Ammor for koshari and feteer. Hor Al Anz was a maze - I don't remember any of the streets, or even how we eventually landed up on the doorstep of Al Ammor. But that mad hunt was SO worth it. Almost inspired me to author a book: Koshari for the Konflicted Soul.
Trip #2: Not food-related at all. Tagged along with Sheban [remember that B&W photographer genius I’d been outrageously jealous of a few months ago? I’m not jealous anymore – I just couldn’t be. One doesn’t compare local satellite TV to Hollywood. And guess who’s the local satellite channel in this metaphor?] who had to run an errand in the area. As I sat around waiting in the car for him to get back, I gazed out of the window. My eyes landed on a string of ethnic, hole-in-the-wall joints. Hmmm...intriguing.
Trip #3: Once again with Sheban, in search of a place called Phili cafe for afternoon chai after we'd noshed on truckloads of sugar at Bakefest. We never found it, but winding through the roads, I suddenly realized the sheer number of ethnic places. Yemeni. Ethiopian. Lebanese. Egyptian. Iranian. Iraqi. Moroccan.
We never found Phili cafe and left chailess...but with three words reverberating in my head. Must. Come. Back.
Trip #4: Dragged Sheban to drive me back there to EAT.
In places like Hor Al Anz that are teeming with scores and scores of unassuming little eateries, I regress into a child at an amusement park. That hyperactive child who starts bouncing about and suffers temporary A.D.D. because it can't figure out whether to go on the rollercoasterorthesupermanslideorhauntedcastleorcandyflossIwantmammanownowNOW!
We trekked down the one main road of stores and restaurants, road 13b, and peeped into all the little alleyways that stealthily branched off to give homes to more tiny stores and restaurants…it was like one big maze of awesomeness just waiting to be eaten. The place we finally settled on (thanks to this schmanzy restaurant finder application that Sheban had on his fancypants smartphone) was this one right here:
Wajda Morrocain Restaurant.
It had all the markings that an authentic ethnic cheap eat should have…tiny, barely conspicuous façade, location on some tiny street behind the main Hor Al Anz strip [there’s a map on the menu – but it’s in Arabic – I’m working on the translation for ya.], a kitchen that was 40% the size of my tiny New York-sized studio apartment [tah-hiiinnnny], a traditional four-burner gas stove, and an elderly lady in her abaya, with her one hand stirring the pot on the stove, and her other hand clutching her handbag because this was her final stir before she headed out for the night, leaving everything in the trusty hands of her son? grandson? nephew? who knows…but the kitchen had been left in the hands of this 20-some year old boy with a popped collar, a hands-free plugged into one ear, and a mouth that occasionally spewed out irritated curses every time his eyes flitted to the man speaking on the little TV screen above our heads.
Seconds after we’d snagged one of the three tables in the little dining space facing the kitchen, a pretty lady, maybe in her early 30’s – also part of the Wajda family perhaps? – walked up to our table and kindly offered to help us order in English before she left. This is what she helped us settle on:
Zaalouk. A dip made of tomatoes and cooked eggplant whose smokiness and intense tomatoey flavor I could imagine even though I’d never tasted it before…I just knew it would be amazing.
…why is something with tomatoes and eggplant green you ask? Because popped-collar boy manning the kitchen had one ear clogged with his hands-free...so our Zaalouk order conveniently morphed into a Bakoula one instead – something that tasted of boiled mashed spinach leaves (which on googling, I’ve learned are actually mallow leaves.), a twinge of lemon, and a generous sprinkling of disappointment because really, all I wanted was tomato pulpiness in my mouth. The saving grace was this fresh crusty Morrocain khobz that they were pulling right out of their ovens.
Perfect ratio of Fluff : Crunch.
The outsides of the khobz had been strategically dusted with semolina grains, leaving grainy baby granules studded on the crust to crunch up under a fierce blasting of oven heat. The insides were full of white pillowy fluff, perfect for sponging up dips and gravies and sauces and the chickeny juices from this super traditional lemon and olives chicken tagine…
I love tagines. And Wajda Moroccain has a crazy nine types of tagine – including a sardine kofta one and a beef tagine camoon* that I’ve got to go back and try.
*someone tell me what camoon is, please? Google has deserted me on this one.
The tagines I’ve had in the past have usually been slightly sweet, slow-cooked meats with prunes and apricots and nuts and soft simmering spices that seep deep into the meaty smithereens. The key is to morph the meat into butter, by braising it in the traditional conical earthenware. And true to tradition, the chicken in Wajda's tagine had broken down into tender bunches of flesh – no harsh forks and knifes needed, just a simple tug is all it took for the plump leg to glide off the thigh.
Now don't expect there to be a whole lot of flavour within the white insides of the chicken – it all sort of streams out and accumulates into a pool of comforting chickeny broth on the bed of the tagine. SO, if you want the full flavourful experience, take my very profound eating suggestions and: (a) reintegrate the elements, the chicken and the broth, ideally with a nice hefty swab of khobz, before you plant it in your mouth, (b) dunk crispy fries into more lemony chicken broth, (c) alternate bites of chicken bits encased in brothy khobz with bites of brothy fries, and (d) sigh.
Thanks to Sheban, who demanded that real meat (aka. sausages or kababs) be bought to the table, we called for a plate of Moroccon merguez. Maybe traditional merguez is an acquired taste...that, or the chicken tagine had already closed my tummy for business, because these just didn't wow me. For all the obnoxious orange popsicle stains these sausages left all over my hand and mouth (and as dribble if you squirt a sausage down your shirt. which of course, I did.), they actually didn't taste of much. Unless I sprinkled them with tons of salt and used them as edible logs of salty granules just so I could eat…salt. (If it weren’t obvious already, I love salt.)
And that’s it. We got a grand total of three dishes, doing a terrible injustice to a menu that included muffin-like semolina Harcha, paratha-like Melaui, pancake-like Beghrir and Reefa [no, I didn’t know any Moroccan bread jargon till I read it on the menu. And yes, I googled it. Moroccanfood.about.com is a godsend.], pastry-encased chicken pastille, sweet couscous, and this calamari sandwich that I stupidly spotted on the paper menu pamphlet only now, while writing this post. To our credit, they had run out of chicken pastille, and we were also saving space for this tiny chai joint and a knafeh place that we’d spotted on our walk over to this restaurant. I promise to serve you crisp-creamy knafeh in my next post.
With our limited ordering, I’d probably have to go back and eat my way through more of the menu before I decide whether this restaurant’s a keeper. And returning to Hor Al Anz is actually a very heartwarming thought. The entire area is like an overlooked oilfield, and I’m waiting on one toe to rope in more explorers who’d be willing to plonk themselves down at a rickety wooden table and try some ethnic grub with me.
I’m telling you people, Hor Al Anz is my new Karama.
Wajda Morrocain Restaurant
Phone: +971 (4) 2666 4772 / (50) 2177065
I'm a space cadet when it comes to directions, but I spent a crapload of time on google maps figuring out the location for ya.