The Spiceman Cometh

Michael Nagrant / 03.10.06

This article first appeared in the Chicago Journal


Schwarma and Hummus at Couscous.

You’d think a restaurant named Couscous would serve the best couscous in Chicago. Frankly, we have no idea. In two years of visits to this storefront oasis of Middle Eastern cuisine located on a stretch of Taylor Street famous for Italian joints, we have been too busy sampling the other seventy tasty dishes.

If the large menu doesn’t distract you, then the kitschy mirror depicting two languid jaguars sunning themselves in front of a pyramid surely will. A ceremonial hookah is perched next to the cash register, and metal urns are perched on shelves scattered through the restaurant. A woodlands-themed wallpaper with a covey of ducks flushing from prairie grass backdrops the entire restaurant.

Couscous specializes in the cuisine of Maghreb, a region of northwestern Africa that includes the areas of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia between the Atlas Mountains and the Mediterranean Sea. This region was a crossroads for the spice trade, and as a result, the cuisine has a flavor profile rooted in pungent spices like cinnamon, cumin, paprika, coriander, and ginger.

These aromatics hang in the air as you dine on familiar middle-eastern favorites. Lamb shwarma, with a hint of cinnamon, nutmeg, and charcoal smokiness, is crunchy on the outside, tender on the inside. The tabouleh zings with lemon, freshly chopped parsley, and mint that cools the palate. The fried falafel is nestled inside warm puffed pita and topped with tomato, cucumber, and a creamy bittersweet tahini dressing.

Instead of finishing with a desert like baklava, which is decent but unexceptional, order up a small demitasse of sweet, cardamom-scented Turkish coffee. Once you finish the drink, you will be left with a thick sludge of coffee grounds. If you are prone to fortune telling experiments, traditional practice of Tasseography (reading the coffee grounds) dicates that you should turn over the cup, rotate it a few times, and look at the pattern the grounds form. Typical patterns include the snake (enmity or falsehood), spade (good fortune through hard work), or mountain (journey full of obstacles).

Couscous is cash only, but the falafel is only $2.75, and only one dish tops $10. When you check out, the chef/owner occasionally rounds down the bill. Don’t let him do it. Couscous is a true mom and pop. Keep the cash in their coffers so they can keep on cooking.

Couscous is located at 1445 W. Taylor St. Hours are 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. daily. Phone is 312-226-2408.

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