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: Moroccan Paradise
Location: 1212 E. Apache Boulevard, Tempe
Open: Less than a month
Eats: Moroccan, American
Price: $15 and under/person
What do you get when you combine Moroccan food, gelato, and poutine? A stomach ache, maybe. But also, the newly opened Moroccan Paradise restaurant in Tempe.
Brought to the same strip mall as well-loved Indo-Pak restaurant Curry Corner by an owner who comes to the Valley from Morocco by way of Canada, this new restaurant's menu is nothing short of diverse. You'll find Moroccan appetizers such as zaalouk right next to Quebec's most famous dish, poutine. There are also tagines of chicken and beef, made-to-order crepes, and a long list of colorful fruit drinks featuring everything from strawberry and mango to avocado juice, espresso, and Chantilly cream.
Not being able to choose between the two most authentic Moroccan starters (that's according to the friendly owner, Chabi), we tried both the shakshuka ($3.99) and zaalouk ($3.99). We preferred the latter, an earthy blend of eggplant and tomatoes that was spiced with parsley, garlic, and cumin to make for a nutty, almost sweet start. The shakshuka — made with tomato, red pepper, and garlic — offered a more familiar flavor profile, but seemed one dimensional in comparison to the other. Both came with with a few pieces of pita bread for scooping, and when we ran out, we finished off the rest with a fork.
Being that the owner told us he'd lived in Canada for several decades, we also had to try the restaurant's version of poutine ($5.99). We were also, therefore, surprised when the bowl of fries arrived at our table covered in a layer of melted American cheese. The owner however returned a few minutes later to explain he hadn't been able to find cheese curds in the Valley just yet. We'd wished we'd been warned before we ordered the dish — though despite the obvious downside of using orange, plastic-y American cheese in place of squeaky cheese curds, the fries were thick and crispy, and the gravy, which pooled at the bottom of the bowl, was rich with just the right amount of salt.
For our entree, we selected the chicken tagine ($11.99). The bright orange pot came loaded with several pieces of bone-in chicken swimming in light broth of onions, preserved lemon, olives, and more. A fistful of French fries had then been scattered on top, which was at first a surprise, and then a revelation since the crispy frites made a great excuse to soak up the extra braising liquid. The chicken itself leapt off the bone at the slightest touch of the fork but wasn't quite as flavorful as we would have imagined. And though the menu promised ginger, saffron, and cardamom, we didn't catch much whiff of the fragrant spices.
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The accompanying side of basmati rice was, however, excellent. Light and fluffy and tinged with warm spices including cumin and turmeric, it smelled nearly as good as it tasted.
You'll have a hard time resisting dessert at Moroccan Paradise, what with the options being so diverse. There's a whole case of gelato to choose from, as well as fruit drinks, crepes, waffles, and milkshakes. We opted for the Casablance ($7) crepe, listed on the menu as featuring achta (Middle Eastern pastry cream), banana, cantaloupe, mango, pineapple, strawberry, papaya, passion fruit, almond, raisin, honey, and pistachio. Wether it all made it onto the plate, we're not entirely sure, but we definitely found hunks of (possibly underripe) papaya folded into our plate-sized crepe, along with a light whipped cream and bananas. A drizzle of honey and crumbled pistachio boosted sweetness and added a bit of texture to what was nothing more and nothing less than a perfectly fine dessert.
Finally, we ordered one of the restaurants 14 fruit desserts, which are almost all intensely colorful and layered in the many photos presented on the menu and on the television screens throughout the restaurant. The Bora Bora ($6) came with two distinct layers: a bottom, orange layer of super sweet mango juice, topped with a pale green mantle of avocado juice. The avocado juice, apparently a blend of avocado and milk, was creamy and surprisingly light with almost no flavor at all. You couldn't miss, however, the sweet strawberry syrup mixed into both layers and drizzled on top. More show than flavor, this drink probably won't make it on our order next time — though the restaurant's Cappucino Glace made with coffee and vanilla gelato might make a nice ending to future meals.
It could just be coincidence that this Moroccan-American-Canadian restaurant found its home in the former home of Jorge's Chicken and Waffles, a short-lived Mexican chicken and waffles restaurant that closed in October. We'll choose to believe it's fate. And in any case, Moroccan Paradise brings an infusion of new flavor — flavors? — to the Tempe dining scene.