Save this restaurant: Couscous

04.07.05

Calling the owner of Little Italy’s Couscous humble is like saying P. Diddy is slightly ambitious. When prompted for his last name, Jawed says, “It’s not important. I’d rather let the restaurant speak for itself.” But a storefront oasis serving Maghrebin cuisine (a mash-up of Tunisian, Moroccan and Algerian flavors) in a neighborhood famed for Italian joints isn’t going to turn as many tables as its red sauce–slinging neighbors. It’s not surprising, then, that the hookahs perched along the wall outnumber the trickle of patrons. “Luckily it’s a small business, so I don’t have many workers or too much expense,” Jawed says.

Pungent aromatics permeate the casual eatery, where he marries the familiar flavors of his West Bank youth with the exotic spiciness of his wife’s native Tunisia. Lamb shawarma has a hint of cinnamon and a charcoal smokiness. Golden-brown falafel balls are fragrant jewels redolent of toasted cumin. Tajeens (eggy soufflés) teem with cheese and herbs, and mountains of meat and flame-roasted vegetables are piled atop fluffy beds of glistening couscous pearls. A demitasse of sweet, cardamom-scented Turkish coffee serves as a perfect ending to the meal alongside a slice of dense baklava.

Jawed opened Couscous in 2001 with authenticity in mind, saying that owners of some Middle Eastern restaurants often tame spices, or ditch traditional ingredients like tahini (a sesame-seed paste commonly found in hummus) to save money. While he spares no expense, Jawed has a habit of rounding down your bill and refusing tips. Don’t let him do it. Keep the cash in his coffers so he can keep on cooking.

1445 W Taylor St between Bishop and Laflin Sts (312-226-2408). Lunch, dinner. El: Blue to Polk. Bus: 12 Roosevelt, 37 Sedgwick/Ogden. Average main course: $9.

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