Couscous Cafe brings culinary treasures of Morocco and the Mediterranean to OKC 

click to enlarge Kofta and veggie kabob at Couscous Cafe, 8-26-2016, Oklahoma City. - MARK HANCOCK
  • Mark Hancock
  • Kofta and veggie kabob at Couscous Cafe, 8-26-2016, Oklahoma City.

If it’s been a while since diners last visited Couscous Cafe, 6165 N. May Ave., the restaurant might seem a little different.

Gone is the bird shop next door and the wall separating the two spaces. In its place are new booths, new bathrooms and a lot more room to spread out.

Go with a friend who hasn’t been for a bit and watch the gears turn behind his eyes. Much of the restaurant is the same, like the big case full of desserts by the register and the clang of the kitchen putting together orders. But there’s just enough different that returning guests might spin around once or twice, trying to place what has changed.

What has not changed is the food.

Couscous Cafe, despite the remodel and expansion, retains the recipes and service that made the restaurant so beloved in the first place. But if one hasn’t yet experienced the charms of this Moroccan and Mediterranean eatery, there is much to discuss.

Step 1: Check the weather outside. Is it blazing-hot? Are the streets salty from the collective sweat of the populace? If the answer to either of those is yes, it doesn’t really matter: Order harrira ($3.50).

There’s never a bad time for harrira, a Moroccan soup with a vegetable broth base filled with peas, vermicelli, tomatoes, onions and herbs. In the depths of winter, this petite bowl provides welcome heat and the starchy goodness of pasta and peas.

During a scorching summer, it tastes too good to pass up. Supplement it with a giant glass of the famed iced mint tea ($1.99). Let the mint trickle down, extinguishing the soup’s heat and washing away the stress of surviving the sun-cracked wasteland outside.

Step 2: Harrira is an amuse bouche of sorts at Couscous Cafe. It could be an appetizer in its own right, but this is the point when one orders more appetizers.

Hummus ($2.95) is practically a given. Ask the table if they’d like to share some and watch their eyes light up. In fact, if their eyes don’t light up, it’s time to get new friends. Good riddance, hummus haters.

The olive oil-heavy chickpea dip pairs perfectly with pita, but it’s also amazing with zaalook ($3.95).

Don’t let the name scare anybody off. Zaalook is a delightful dish of cooked eggplant, tomatoes and garlic with a seasoning blend that includes a touch of cinnamon. This also goes well with pita and probably anything else. Mildly sweet, zaalook has a pop of spice and smoke that would be a welcome addition to eggs, roast beef and possibly ice cream. Get this.

click to enlarge Hummus, Zaalook, Morocan Salad combo at Couscous Cafe, 6165 N. May Avenue, Oklahoma City, 8-26-2016. - MARK HANCOCK
  • Mark Hancock
  • Hummus, Zaalook, Morocan Salad combo at Couscous Cafe, 6165 N. May Avenue, Oklahoma City, 8-26-2016.

Grape leaves (three for $2.50) aren’t usually my favorites, but the ones served at Couscous are killer. The marinated leaves had a fresh snap to them, and the dill rice stuffing was soft and had a lovely zing.

Couscous salad ($5.25) is another option, but the last serving of it had a bitterness that was a bit off-putting. Perhaps it was just that batch. Regardless, it was light and is a vegetarian option for those interested.

The best bet for newcomers is to get the vegetarian combo ($6), which lets diners pick three from couscous salad, hummus, grape leaves, falafel balls, Moroccan salad and zaalook.

Step 3: Is it fair to call it a main course if one plans to eat two or three of them? Let’s leave that to the philosophers and just eat.

Another vegetarian option is a falafel burrito ($5.95), which is almost self-explanatory. Diners receive a pair of burritos filled with rice, a bit of salad and those gorgeous, deep-fried chickpea balls known as falafel.

The burritos are delightful dipped in hummus, zaalook or tzatziki sauce or simply eaten quickly in an attempt to keep anyone else from asking for a bite.

A classic gyro sandwich ($4.99) is much less vegetarian. A pita filled with chewy, tender chunks of a spiced beef-and-lamb mix and topped with lettuce, tomato, onions and pickles is definitely for carnivores only.

It seems as if Couscous cuts its gyro meat a little thicker than most, which adds a new dimension of juiciness and mouthfeel. It’s one of the best in the metro, for sure.

In the kebab section, look for a combo of kefta (sometimes called kofta) and vegetables ($6.99). The grilled and seasoned ground beef balls would make delicious Mediterranean hamburgers, but these tender concoctions are best with a bite of grilled zucchini and a spoonful of Couscous’s perfectly cooked rice. If there’s some zaalook left over, try a little on top. Otherwise, dip it in the tzatziki and let the sharpness of the sauce and the savory, fatty juiciness of the kefta wash over taste buds. It’s like a snuggle on a stick.

At any other meal, kefta might be the topper, but the restaurant has a few aces up its sleeves.

Step 4: Strap in, because, to paraphrase Beyoncé, I don’t think you’re ready for this tagine.

Tagines are braising vessels used to slow-cook foods and create intensely flavorful and fall-apart-tender dishes.

Couscous’ lamb tagine ($10.99) is simply bonkers. Under the conical lid is a bed of fluffy long-grain rice and a lamb shank with meat so tender, the pages of its tear-stained diary are filled with John Mayer lyrics.

click to enlarge Lamb tagine at Couscous Cafe, 6165 N. May Avenue, Oklahoma City, 8-26-2016. - MARK HANCOCK
  • Mark Hancock
  • Lamb tagine at Couscous Cafe, 6165 N. May Avenue, Oklahoma City, 8-26-2016.

Step 5: Stop reading this and get going already. Couscous Cafe was a home run before the remodel, and now it’s a bigger, nicer place to get some of the best Mediterranean fare in Oklahoma City. Just be warned: Even with more tables, the food is so good the restaurant can fill up in a hurry.

Print headline: Moroccan masterpiece, Recently expanded Couscous Cafe is the perfect spot to delve into Mediterranean cuisine.

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