When a new spot opens in town, we can't wait to check it out -- and let you know our initial impressions, share a few photos, and dish about some menu items. First Taste, as the name implies, is not a full-blown review, but instead a peek inside restaurants that have just opened, sampling a few items, and satisfying curiosities (yours and ours).
Restaurant: Couscous Express Location: 1915 E. McDowell Road, Phoenix Open: About a month Eats: Moroccan Price: $12-15 a person
If you've recently taken McDowell Road in central Phoenix, then chances are good you've already seen the bright green and yellow sign that popped up on the south side of the street just west of the 51. And though the small storefront still looks quiet most days, there is, in fact, a small restaurant there called Couscous Express.
The new spot comes from Moroccan-born owner Abdul, who's lived in Phoenix for about three years. Before opening this restaurant a month ago, he lived and worked in Yuma, where he sold date shakes.
At Couscous Express, you won't have to worry about ordering one of these shakes. From what we saw during our visit, it seems Abdul brings a shake to every guest without anyone having to ask. If you finish it, he may even bring a second glass.
This is also the case with the appetizers and mint tea.
Just a few minutes after we took a seat, our gracious host delivered a plate of carrots and peas along with a basket of warm bread. The tender vegetables were lightly spiced and, in the case of the carrots, held just the right amount of heat. The bread, a spongy white variety, can be torn off split in two and used to scoop up bites of food. After three pieces of bread and most of the plate of vegetables, we realized we should probably save room for the main event.
Even then, we enjoyed the small bowl of lemon and garlicky olives that arrived next along with two tall glasses of hot mint tea.
When it comes time to actually order food, the menu is fairly simple. You can have plain couscous, served by the pound, or couscous with vegetables, chicken, lamb, or beef. If you choose to go with the tagine, you can also have just the stewed meats with no couscous.
We tried both the beef and chicken tagine with a bowl of couscous on the side. Both dishes were simple and satisfying, the kind of food that's comforting even if you've never eaten Moroccan food before. Served with vegetables and potatoes, the beef fell of the bone at the slightest touch of the fork and the chicken, also tender, offered a robust meaty flavor complemented by herbs.
The couscous is not to be missed. Light and fluffy, this stuff will change the way you think of couscous forever. Even the flavor is complex, slightly nutty but also a little sweet, making it good alone as well as soaked in some of the broth from either beef or lamb.
Abdul delivered two date shakes to the table at the end of the meal. According to the owner, his shakes stand out from the rest on account of the fact that he doesn't use ice cream to make them, relying on the sweetness of the fruit instead of other sugars. He also includes peanut butter, which gives a nice richness to the drink, and sprinkles a touch of nutmeg on top.
On Saturday and Sunday, Couscous Express also serves Moroccan bastilla, the traditional meat pie that's both sweet and savory. Though they're usually large and made to be shared, the restaurant serves smaller versions filled with either chicken or fish.
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Between the bright but homey interior of the restaurant -- the decor includes shelves of delicate teapots, yellow walls, and Moroccan lanterns -- and the graciousness of the owner, it's easy to feel like you've traveled somewhere else during a long lunch here. And do leave time for a long meal, on our visit Abdul oversaw all four tables in the restaurant, meaning service was friendly if not exactly quick.