A piano stands against the wall in Moroccan Paradise – not an elegant grand piano, just a scuffed, timeworn upright of the sort you might see in a church basement or a college rec center. But this is a Moroccan restaurant, so I want it to be Sam’s piano. I’d like to hear “As Time Goes By” played on it, and I’d like to think that if I opened the lid, I’d find the “letters of transit” signed by de Gaulle.
This is the sort of thing the word “Morocco” conjures for many of us – the intrigue and exoticism of Casablanca, the exploits of literary recluses like Paul Bowles and William S. Burroughs, and the vivid mingling of North African, Arab and European culture. It’s Western pop-culture myopia to a large extent, but the cuisine is lovely. And suddenly the Valley finds itself in a Moroccan food golden age, with this Tempe eatery opening on the heels of the comparably excellent – if more Bohemian – Couscous Express in Central Phoenix, and highly-regarded Alzohour Market in West Phoenix.
Appetizers at Moroccan Paradise include zaalouk, an eggplant dip, and shakshuka, a dip of tomato and red pepper, both mild, both served with pita. There’s also a refreshing cucumber salad. All of these are good, but it’s inadvisable to load up – Moroccan food is hearty, so save plenty of room for your main course.
Along with many Middle Eastern and Mediterranean standards, the menu includes distinctively Moroccan fare like couscous and tajines – meat and stewed vegetable entrees served in the eponymous shallow pots under conical lids. Beef tajine is a yielding, melt-in-the-mouth pot roast atop potatoes, carrots and peas, with a side of rice and bread, while the lamb version features three nicely charred chops over a slightly different, equally tasty veggie combo.
I was most intrigued by the beef over prunes and apricots, but this turned out to be the one miss among the tajines I tried. The sweetness of the fruit, presumably meant to offset the savory meat, was instead overwhelmed by a far-too-salty gravy.
A variety of kebabs are available among the grilled platter options, but the simplest approach is the mixed grill platter, an embarrassment of riches including kefta (ground meat) , filet and chicken all on one plate. Morocco’s seacoast was represented by a recent special: golden pompano, delightfully grill-y without losing the fine, light flavor of the fish.
You should save room for dessert if you can. Moroccan Paradise excels at the sweet stuff: crêpes and waffles made while you watch. I tried the Costa del Sol, a crêpe filled and drizzled with hazelnut and topped with sliced bananas and strawberries; these can also be topped with outstanding gelato.
This dessert bar also opens to a patio with outside tables, which in turn overlooks a light rail station on Apache Boulevard. So getting in and out of Moroccan Paradise should be easier for you than getting in and out of Casablanca was for Ingrid Bergman.
Contact: 1212 E. Apache Blvd., Tempe, 480-758-5117, moroccanparadise.net
Hours: 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. daily.
Highlights: Zaalouk ($3.99); shakshuka ($3.99); cucumber salad ($3.99); beef tajine ($11.99); lamb tajine ($13.99); beef tajine prunes ($11.99); mixed grill platter ($13.99); Costa del Sol crêpe ($5); Bora Bora shake ($6)
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