It’s tempting to bemoan the lack of diversity in the Valley restaurant scene; ours is still a culinary landscape overpopulated with meat-and-potato chain restaurants and 24-hour burrito joints. But every now and then, a new spot turns up brimming with far-flung flavors, and the Valley becomes a more interesting place to eat.
Such is the case with Habbouz Tunisian Cuisine, a bare-bones eatery located in a shabby strip mall off the I-17 and Northern Avenue. The small, casual restaurant, which opened earlier this fall, bills itself as the first and only Tunisian restaurant in metro Phoenix, an intriguing claim that undoubtedly will draw diners searching for the city’s latest uncommon cuisine. Thankfully, though, Habbouz is more than a novel destination for culinary exotica. The restaurant’s small menu of Tunisian specialties is so fiendishly good, you’ll wonder why it took so long for Tunisia to make inroads into the Sonoran Desert.
The restaurant’s spartan dining room, which contains only a handful of mismatched booths and a couple of Formica-topped tables, is presided over by friendly owner, host, and chef Nabiha Bejaoui, a native of the capital city of Tunis. Bejaoui graciously offers first-time diners a crash course in Tunisian food, a neglected cuisine that often gets lumped in with Moroccan cooking (Habbouz, whether by coincidence or design, is located next door to Alzohour, one of Phoenix’s oldest Moroccan restaurants and markets). Although there is substantial overlap — both cuisines, for example, claim couscous and merguez sausage as staples — Tunisian food is generally more Mediterranean in character. Tunisia itself, sandwiched between Algeria and Libya in North Africa, is only about 100 miles from the Italian coastline, and many dishes feature typical Mediterranean ingredients like olive oil, tomatoes, and peppers. The cuisine also is famous for harissa, the ubiquitous North African chili and garlic sauce that is the official condiment of Tunisia.
At Habbouz, slata mechouia, a traditional grilled pepper salad, best exemplifies the bold, sun-burnished flavors of Tunisia. The green peppers are grilled, gently pureed along with tomato, garlic, and onion, then drizzled with olive oil. On a recent visit, my dining companion and I scooped up the thick spicy-sweet salad (which resembled a fresh relish) with the restaurant’s outstanding flatbread, made in-house by Bejaoui. It was hard to pick out which was more craveable — the summery, smoky relish or the chewy, oversize flatbread, so big and pillowy it could almost double as a baby’s blanket.
If you make room for only one dish at Habbouz, let it be the ajja merguez, a lamb sausage and egg dish served in a mildly spicy tomato and harissa sauce. On a recent dinner visit, the homemade merguez sausage, molded into juicy links, was exceptionally flavorful and fragrant. Every juicy bite summoned notes of toasted cumin and coriander, with lingering flashes of chile and spice. Two over-easy eggs were baked into the middle of the dish, a mellow and savory counterpoint to the bright harissa sauce.
Kebabs (not the skewered variety) also are exceptionally good at Habbouz. The kebabs are handmade from a blend of lightly spiced minced lamb and beef, the combination lending richer, more complex flavor to the finished product. On a recent visit, the kebabs were gently browned and seared on the outside, all moist and juicy flavor on the inside. The long, sausage-like kebabs were akin to an exceptionally good meatball. Every meaty bite was fall-apart tender, satisfying in the way that only top-notch home cooking can be.
Bejaoui, who singlehandedly cooks every dish to order, will recommend you try the house couscous. You would be wise to listen. The couscous granules are bathed in a lovely harissa-spiked tomato sauce, then gently steamed until they swell into a light, fluffy plate of comfort food heaven. The couscous pairs well with nearly every meat dish on the menu.
Chicken mechoui is another house specialty, juicy hunks of grilled chicken breast marinated in a blend of Tunisian spices. The dish comes with a side of slata mechouia, or you can order it with your choice of couscous or yellow rice. The yellow rice was tender and beautifully aromatic on a recent visit, but not nearly as satisfying as the excellent couscous.
If you’re partial to a good shawarma sandwich, the chicken shawarma at Habbouz hits all the right notes. The juicy strips of marinated chicken are dressed in a lightly spicy secret sauce and topped with chunks of onion, tomato, black olives, and pickle, then wrapped in the house flatbread. You can have it with a side of crunchy, nicely salted French fries.
It’s worth noting Habbouz’s selection of specialty drinks, which include a fragrant rosewater, and a milky-cool almond. Both are quite good. But for a memorable finish to your meal, try the Arabic coffee, which is poured into traditional small porcelain cups. The dark, bitter drink is best accompanied by one of chef Bejaoui’s delectable, homemade desserts. You won’t want to miss her baklawa, a Tunisian version of the Turkish classic. The paper-thin leaves of filo dough are melded together with real honey and sweet, nutty pistachio crumbles. It’s a remarkably good treat, as is the house almond orange cake, which is fantastically spongey and moist.
Other specialty desserts also are available with advance notice, including Yoyos, traditional Tunisian doughnuts made with orange blossom water and honey syrup. But whether you ask for it or not, odds are that Bejaoui will ply you with a complimentary dessert. It might be the baklawa or whatever other sweet treat she happened to whip up that day.
The complimentary sweets, and the chef’s friendly presence, make for a charming meal at Habbouz. But the main draw is the wonderful, homespun food, a point of pride for Bejaoui, who will count the ways her couscous is different from the others you’ve probably eaten. Be warned, however, that the restaurant’s small, offbeat menu is subject to change, depending on what ingredients the chef is able to procure. She doesn’t use overseas vendors to buy ingredients and spices that are hard to find in Phoenix; she has arranged to have family members back home ship them to her directly. This means you might want to call ahead if you have your heart set on a particular dish, especially one of her tantalizing desserts.
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But no matter what’s on the menu when you arrive, chances are the chef will be waiting for you, eager to recommend the latest dish brewing in the kitchen. And chances are, it will be delicious.
Habbouz Tunisian Cuisine
7816 North 27th Avenue
Slata mechouia $5.99
Ajja merguez $10.99
Chicken shawarma $5.99