cafe zitouna....looks are deceiving in polk gulch
Hey! Let's go see that movie we were talking about. Sure! Where is it playing? Van Ness AMC. Ugh, really?! Fine, but I get to pick a spot nearby to eat. Ugh, really?! Please have it in mind BEFORE we get there. I think that is how the conversation went and how we ended up strolling up Polk Street searching for a place to eat. And yes, this time I did have somewhere already in mind I had vaguely heard about and remember kind of seeing along this stretch, though I wasn't exactly sure what the place looked like or what the address was.
Yes, I could have Googled it but where's the fun in that? It is much more interesting to discover things along the way and 2 blocks past where I originally thought Cafe Zitouna was located. Especially since we had plenty of time before the movie started.
The place is kind of nondescript and we almost walked right on by it. Since no one was inside, I thought they were closed. Then I saw movement in the kitchen and the door was open so in we went. Seriously, we were the only people inside and the SO was like, why this spot and I'm all like, I don't know, someone mentioned it once as being good so here we are.
Looking at the menu it is all classic Middle Eastern cuisine from tajines to kebabs to couscous. While we were sitting there I did look them up on that review site everyone uses and most people seemed to have favorable things to say. We figured we would go all in on this slightly chilly night and kick things off with some hot tea.
A big old pot of Moroccan mint tea! This is classic dark, hearty and thick tea with notes of mint. Not heavy like a piece a gum, but pleasant and refreshing. And please disregard that bowl of sugar they serve with it, this was already Southern tea sweet! Wooboy, I hadn't had something like that in decades. The SO luuuvved it. I actually did kind of like it too. I couldn't drink as much as them, but it was a nice compliment to the food. Bonus points, free refills if you run through the pot.
I figured the multi kebab plate was the way to go so we could try enough different ones. Here we have lamb, chicken, and Merguez--a spicy lamb sausage. Included were sides of that tomato cucumber salad you see at Mediterranean spots and something called jilbana--a mix of peas, potatoes, green olives and artichoke hearts in a thin tomato based soup.
The meats here were really good. The chicken wasn't dry and had a small kick of red pepper and garlic. The lamb sausage was a nice mix of ground meat cumin and coriander. And the lamb was the best of the three. Juicy, tender and flavorful. I think the fact we were the only ones there meant they were pretty much cooked to order and hadn't been sitting around which I will not complain about. They did a really great job with these meats.
That little salad thing was crunchy and fresh, though it screamed for some salt and pepper. The jilbana was different. I'm pretty sure the peas were canned, but it was like a hearty veggie soup and the artichoke hearts were actually a surprise. I think we both thought it was celery at first, but when we dug it out, surprise! They were marinated ones as I could taste some tang from vinegar in there. Not sure it would be my first choice as a side, but as a veggie companion to all the meat, it was nice enough.
It was the description alone on the menu that drew me to order this. Called "The Pie From Heaven," it is a blend of shredded chicken meat, scrambled eggs, herbs, roasted almonds, saffron, ginger and honey wrapped in phyllo dough, baked and sprinkled with powdered sugar and cinnamon. Yes, this is where the sweet meets the meat. It is definitely almost pie size and more than enough for two to share. It was also pretty fantastic. Outside of a tajine, this dish really screamed Morocco/Middle Eastern food to me. It reminded me a lot of the phyllo dough wrapped things I had when I toured there. Tender, tangy, sweet and crunchy bread, it hit all the right notes. I might have done with a tad less of the powdered sugar, but both me and the SO agreed this was the best dish and we would certainly recommend trying it.
What can I say, the place may not look like much from the outside, but once you are in, the food is a tasty surprise, as was the service. I'm guessing it was the guy who owned the place, but he was super nice and even brought us bread with some lovely spicy dipping sauce while we waited for our food to be cooked. The prices were also a bit of a surprise, though, because we were hungry, we did order the two most expensive things on the menu. But perusing through some of the other offerings, it could make for a larger than normal bill. Still, I know you will be shocked to hear this from me, it doesn't take away from the deliciousness of the food.
I guess if you ever find yourself looking for a place to grab a bite before a movie or prior to bar hopping your way down Polk-strasse, Cafe Zitouna is a delectable option. Though, after dinner, you may find all you really want to do is lay down and drift into the salty sweet dreams of "The Pie From Heaven," and a come down from all that sugar tea!