“SANDWICH TUNA $5.99.” So reads the largest and most prominent of the signs in the window of Habbouz Tunisian Cuisine.
Tunisia does indeed have a stretch of seacoast on the Mediterranean, so for all I know the tuna sandwich is a treasured national dish there. And maybe Habbouz makes a terrific specimen of it. Even if so, I’d advise a first-timer to try something else. You can get a good tuna sandwich plenty of places in the Valley, but you can probably only get, say, slata mechouiya at Habbouz.
And you want it. Though an appetizer, this blend of peppers, garlic, onions and tomatoes topped with fat, meaty olives and scooped up and given a ride to your mouth on pieces of marvelous flatbread verges on main-course status. It’s strikingly spicy, but in a home-cooking way – a characteristic of many offerings at Habbouz.
Tucked between Algeria and Libya, tiny Tunisia has been inhabited and/or occupied at one time or another by Berbers, Phoenicians (of the non-Arizona variety, that is), Romans, Spaniards, Ottoman Turks, Arabs and the French. In terms of surroundings, though, Habbouz offers little of the exotic, romantic atmosphere this diversity implies. The seating, the glaring overhead lights, and the drone of CNN from the TV on the wall give the place, housed next to a Middle Eastern market in a glamour-free strip mall on 27th Avenue, a plain, deli-like functionality.
Don’t be put off; the cuisine more than makes up for it. The menu features standards like hummus and falafel, but the specifically Tunisian dishes, at least to judge from the Habbouz treatment of them, lean invigoratingly to the spicier end of the spectrum.
The ajja merguez is a highlight: small, aridly granular sausages in harissa, a potent but not overpowering red sauce with peppers, all topped with two eggs. I had mine over medium, and the yolks made a luscious, rich counterpoint to the heat of the sauce.
Milder but no less flavorful was the lamb couscous. The lean lamb obeys the cliché by “falling off the bone,” but the perfectly seasoned couscous isn’t an afterthought: It’s no less indispensable than the meat, with a delightful aroma and mouthfeel. The chicken méchoui, several juicy chunks of grilled white meat, is less distinctive than some of the other entrées, but shows that Habbouz knows how to treat a bird. It comes with a choice of rice, couscous or the aforementioned slata mechouiya; I suggest the last.
Baked goodies are available for dessert. Along with baklava, there’s makroudh, a semolina pastry filled with dates and served in a honeyed syrup, and youyou (aka yo-yo), a mini-doughnut. The first will satisfy a sweet tooth, while the second will satisfy an even sweeter tooth.
And hey, if none of this tempts you, you can always try the tuna sandwich.
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