Couscous Ca-choo!

A magical mystery tour through the Algerian fare

I was puttering about in my housecoat and slippers the other day, listening to Puccini's Turandot and fiddling with my collection of foreign bottle caps, when I spotted the purple top for a bottle of Young's Double Chocolate Stout. One of my favorite brews, its company logo features a ram. What can I say, I was overcome by a violent hankering for a good piece of lamb. I'm a great lover of lamb, and enjoy it in all its forms: from chops and lamb burgers to Irish stew and roast lamb with mint jelly, and, if I'm in an Indian mood, lamb vindaloo. You could even go so far as to say there isn't a sheep below a certain age that's safe in my presence.

Fortunately, a reader had called me recently with a recommendation for an Algerian eatery by the name of Delicious Couscous, raving about all of the delightful Middle Eastern edibles on the menu, but especially about the lamb shank. So when my yen for agneau reached a fever pitch, I abandoned my Puccini, my bottle caps and my housecoat and headed for the small commercial cul-de-sac that Delicious Couscous shares with a health store and a Middle Eastern grocery.

Little did I know that Delicious Couscous prides itself on preparing every platter fresh, so it took some time before my royal lamb couscous was ready to be inhaled. But that's all right, as I detest undercooked shank almost as much as I detest, say, Sex and the City and its horse-faced star Sarah Jessica Parker. (Please note I said almost. ) So I was quite content to drink a bit of mint tea, enjoy the Algerian tunes playing softly on the stereo and nosh on an appetizer or two. I started with a basket of pita bread and a plate of gooey matabbal, an eggplant dip with garlic and tahini nearly identical to baba ghanouj that I adore far more than hummus paste. Quite literally, it was finger-lickin' good, and afterward my fleshy digits were cleaner than if I'd bothered to wash them.

The Hassaines: Lamb couscous, chocolate baklava, and French lessons pour vous.
Jackie Mercandetti
The Hassaines: Lamb couscous, chocolate baklava, and French lessons pour vous.


Fava beans: $3
Royal lamb couscous: $8.25
Tajeen olives: $7.75
Baklava: $1.25

602-277-7745. Hours: Lunch and dinner, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 7 p.m.

4426 North 19th Avenue

But man cannot live by matabbal alone, so I ordered a plate of fava beans, those legumes Hannibal Lecter made famous in The Silence of the Lambs by remarking of one hapless census taker, "I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti." Minus the Chianti and the census taker's liver, Delicious Couscous' favas were, as the French would say, formidable! Mixed with chickpeas, parsley, tomatoes and olive oil, to which I added from the oil and vinegar provided as condiments, these hearty, brown beans caused me to forget momentarily the purpose of my visit.

Ah, but then came the main course, the royal lamb, which was everything I'd anticipated. Served beside a mound of homemade couscous that truly was délicieux -- light and fluffy, with a velvety smoothness that only such lovingly prepared grains of semolina can provide. Atop the couscous was a savory stew of carrots, zucchini and squash, and the lamb was so tender it nearly leaped from the bone when I stared at it harshly. The meat was cooked through and through without being overcooked, so that even the bone's marrow was fit to eat. I felt like some old hound, gnawing on that shank to get the last morsel of flesh. Lord knows, I probably frightened the other diners with my slobbering.

Since this initial, saliva-inducing experience, I've been back to wallow in many of the other superb dishes available. Though I've been slightly skittish about eating beef with all this mad cow talk in the news, I swallowed my fear with a plate of Delicious Couscous' aromatic kafta kebab: two servings of ground tenderloin seasoned with black pepper, spices and parsley. And I've nearly swooned over their Tajeen olive and Bejaia plates. The first is a tomatoey stew of pitted green olives, carrots, mushrooms and breast of chicken over a bed of rice sprinkled with pine nuts; the second, a combination of diced potatoes, onions, tomatoes and garlic simmered together with strips of chicken so the potatoes grow moist with the flavor of the other ingredients. As with most Algerian dishes, these taste best with a little saucer of harissa on the side, the red chile sauce that tickles as well as inflames the palate.

All of these are prepared by Salima Hassaine, who runs this homey little corner of Algiers with her elegant, beautiful daughter Kahina and Salima's husband, Rashid, an architect who worked with the world-renowned Brazilian modernist Oscar Niemeyer on such projects as the University of Constantine and Algiers' Olympic Complex. Several years ago, the family, which includes the Hassaines' two sons, fled the violent political turmoil that's long plagued their native land, spending some time in Syria before finally finding asylum in the United States, and, more specifically, in Phoenix.

"I've always loved cooking," the smiling, dark-haired Madame Hassaine told me recently. "Even when I was at University. And I enjoy experimenting with dishes, too." So perhaps the family was fated to have a restaurant someday, but it's unlikely they ever suspected it would be in Arizona, a place suggested to them by some government apparatchik.

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I love the way you wrote this article! Can't help but smile reading along...I was looking for things to send to my mother-In Law, make her smile.This is one she will definately appreciate! If you happen to know of any others I would love to hear about them so that I can pass them along...