Cafe Reviews

Couscous Express Delivers a Taste of Marrakesh on East McDowell Road

If I miss anything about the neighborhood where I lived for much of the 1980s, it's the authentic ethnic cuisine, mostly along McDowell Road, that I so took for granted there. I remember a Laotian place that served nothing but coconut rice, a Chinese restaurant that sold fried chicken feet, and one of the early (and grungiest) mariscos joints, where my cousin John and I once ate chile shrimp so strong our eyes watered.

The latest uncommon cuisine along McDowell is offered at Couscous Express, open about seven months. Its name suggests a food court to-go spot. But this tiny Moroccan restaurant offers slow-cooked, authentic dishes served by owner Abdul Chaara, easily the most solicitous business owner along a dicey block of shops. He greets each diner personally, routinely offering complimentary sides, starters, and desserts throughout every meal.

Decorated with authentic accoutrement, Couscous Express offers a single low, dark dining room with seating on wide, comfy sofas and walls hung with lutes, silky scarves, and oil paintings of Moroccan bazaars. Fragrant spices, soulful tagines, fiery harissa (a Tunisian hot chili pepper paste), and fluffy couscous are the order of the day.

I often find Moroccan food either bland and monotonous or so over-spiced, I can't find the flavors of meat or vegetables. Not so here, where a subtle sweetness is a common taste among entrées and sides but not one that masks other flavors and fragrant spices. The basis for most of this diner's dishes is the eponymous couscous, the granules of durum wheat that, as prepared here, hold up well to the gravies and sauces served with it. In every variation, Express' couscous offers a nicely grainy flavor and a consistency that's fluffy, not sticky.

An order of hummus was a good place to start ­— spicy and less firm than traditional hummus, its chickpeas joined by marinated bell pepper, jalapeño, and garlic and creamed into a gorgeous blend. Hot, pillowy rounds of homemade pita bread served with it were chewy and dense.

Bowls of lemony, oil-cured olives and an order of spiced roasted carrots were meant to be shared, but I wanted the carrots all to myself; they were that good, spicy with a kick of what might have been jalapeño juice, and with an underlying sweetness. The fava bean soup, heavily spiced with cumin, offered subtle flavors of olive oil, leek, and potato. Delicious hot mint tea, an excellent cleanse for the palate between courses, was brewed not from a dried-peppermint-flavored tea bag, but from fresh spearmint, mellow and minty and not too strong.

The vegetable couscous changes daily; on one visit, mine was rich with buoyant hunks of baked potato; on another, red peppers were the thing, deliciously fresh on their own and superb when forked up with couscous and a glob of hummus.

Meat is most often served as kebabs with a pleasant, homely presentation, sent out on their skewers dropped right onto their generous side of couscous. The beef kebab's tender morsels of tenderloin had a wonderful smoky, wood-burning-oven flavor. Lamb couscous was a comforting dish whose tender meat had good flavor with hints of sea salt, cumin, coriander, garlic, and saffron. An order of chicken couscous offered a pair of kebabs skewered with crisp bites of onion and red pepper alongside falling-off-the-bone tender chicken, flavorful and lightly charred and marinated in what tasted like a cumin yogurt. Big slices of tender potato rounded out this generous meal.

An order of beef couscous married beef braised fork-tender with couscous perfectly steamed and fluffy. The short rib cut was salty with a nice layer of fat, sort of a Moroccan brisket that was best when scooped with a fork full of couscous.

The chicken bastilla (also available, on some days, with fish) is something I'll be back for more of. This scrumptious sweet and savory pastry-wrapped chicken pie is more like a nicely compact turnover, deliciously filled with chicken confit (I tasted onion and egg) in a flaky phyllo crust that's been lightly dusted with cinnamon and powdered sugar. Magnificent.

Express' date shake is not for fans of the Americanized knockoffs locals remember from Mary Coyle. These authentic shakes are thick and rich with a melange of pulverized dates and peanut butter and tricked up with lots of cinnamon. They're a sweet, slippery end to an exhilarating and satisfying meal, straight from Casablanca by way of McDowell Road.

Couscous Express
1915 East McDowell Road

Fava bean soup $4.99
Lamb couscous $11.95
Chicken bastilla $8
Olives and bread $2.99

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela