I know it seems crazy, but I've been known to frequent a restaurant for the goodies doled out before the actual meal. There's the shaved carrot salad, creamy beet spread and homemade sesame bread that Turquoise Cafe serves. There's the parmesan cheese, crushed red pepper, olive oil and chunks of rustic bread that Caro Mio lavishes upon every table. My new favorite? Andalous Moroccan Restaurant brings out bowls of marinated black olives (in an oily red sauce) and cups full of spicy harissa sauce with warmed pita bread while you wait. And, it's pretty much all you can eat, which is a huge plus.
My recent trip to Andalous was only my second time eating Moroccan in the city. It seems I've had it all over the world (NYC, Spain, Italy, Los Angeles, France) but rarely here on my home turf. Who knew that Chicago's take on the difficult-to-prepare cuisine would be just as good as having it a stone's throw from the actual country (Spain is just across the sea), if not better? This cozy storefront is hard to miss because of the wide array of popular haunts that surround it, especially the always-packed Mia Francesca. Luckily for me, Andalous escapes its neighbors' pack-to-the-gills fate, though there's no reason why it shouldn't be just as crowded.
I'm always a huge fan of appetizer samples, which let me taste several house favorites and spend far less than if I'd ordered a whole handful. I started out with the incredibly fresh Andalous Combo Deal ($8.50). It's a total steal and comes with decent-size portions of famed Moroccan appetizers: zaalouk, taktouka, carrots ala sharmoula and bakoula. Of the warm, made-from-scratch dishes my favorite (read: gone in 30 seconds flat) was the carrots. First blanched, the super-soft carrot chunks are lightly dusted in the juice of green olives, hits of garlic, paprika, earthy cumin and fresh lemon juice. Who knew carrots could taste so blissful? The runner up was the wildly rich zaalouk, a creamy eggplant spread with smoky flavor and flavorful tangs of cilantro throughout.
It was difficult for me to choose from the entrees, but I finally went with the not-to-be-missed Marrakech tagine. How could I deny falling-off-the-bone lamb shanks smothered in a thick tomato sauce with onions and herbs, covered with a big, fat pile of homemade french fries? No chance in hell. It had such a sweet punch of cinnamon in every bite and I couldn't get enough of it. And, judging by how long it took for the kitchen to bring out the dish, you'd think the lamb was slaughtered on site.
But in the warm, sparsely populated front dining area, it's not about watching the clock. It's about takin' a breather from the cold outside, shutting down the mayhem inside your head and eating yourself silly on plate-after-plate of authentic Moroccan cuisine. The BYOB policy only adds to the charm.
The Final Rave: The only thing separating the dining room from the kitchen is a frayed maroon curtain, so be prepared to sit through the rants and raves of the surly kitchen help. Are they talking about you? Who knows?
Keep It Going:
Read it: Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco
Paula Wolfert is the premiere chef when it comes to covering this part of the world, and you can pick up this home-cook-friendly best seller at your local bookstore.
Drink it: Marrakech ExpressO
It pours killer Moroccan tea, served piping hot with little cubes of sugar, that goes swimmingly with its chewy Moroccan-style crepes.
Eat it: Moroccan lamb with couscous
Be bold and give this traditional Moroccan dish a go. It's a doozy of a recipe, but an hour and half later, you're practically face to face with the dish every farmer in the Atlas Mountains chows on nightly.
Get crazy with it: Wild Frontiers
Spend Easter in Morocco and chill out with yoga sessions, French cooking and horseback rides. The county is a melting pot of good times, I tell ya!
Fatcake Misty Tosh explores back-alley eateries, holes-in-the-wall and seedy ethnic joints as she treks the city in search of the next raving dish. Join her in the quest.