Monday, July 14, 2008

The Mystery of Merguez (Little Morocco; 24-39 Steinway Street)

We hadn't taken much notice of this takeout counter at the north end of the hookah-smoking district of Astoria until recently, probably because it has no indoor seating and therefore doesn't meet our ground rules. But come summer, they set up ad hoc outdoor seating (plastic tables and chairs), put in place a maître' d/waiter (a genial teenage boy with a questionable grasp of English), and re-create themselves as a sit-down restaurant.

Further piquing our interest in Little Morocco was its sign proclaiming that the New York Times had declared that the place has the best merguez sandwich in the city. It didn't matter that neither of us knew what merguez was. We had to try it. So on a Saturday night we braved the shisha smoke and made a visit. We enjoyed a pot of Moroccan mint tea, calmly deflected the stares of the gaggle of men sitting with us at the café out on the 25th Avenue sidewalk, and we waited in the cool summer evening to have the mystery of merguez solved for us.

We ordered the merguez platter, which came with salad and rice (rather than couscous, which might make more sense), and the sandwich, which was basically the platter, minus the rice, served on a soft Italian roll. It turns out that merguez is a kind of long, skinny sausage, not all that unlike the cevapi served at the Balkan places, but spiced somewhat differently and with a more granular mouth feel. Instead of ajvar to dress it, there is harissa, an unbelievably delicious hot sauce. According to the Times article, both the merguez and the harissa are made fresh on the premises by the chef-owner, who was born in Casablanca and emigrated to America in 1985.

The merguez was nothing special until we got the harissa involved, which the teenager brought over almost as an afterthought. As far as we're concerned, the merguez is merely a pretense for the harissa, which would enliven any dish, though it does complement the sausage well. The platter wasn't worth the extra expense, and we probably would have gotten more out of the sandwich if it didn't come with the salad rolled into it, so you could opt to have the sandwich without, say, the salad dressing or cucumbers. But it was still satisfying and worth having again, and it left us wondering: Why don’t the halal-chicken stands around the neighborhood add merguez (and harissa!) to their repertoire?

Price: Under $10. Cheap.
Will we go again? Probably for takeout. But worth sitting down outside for the tea.


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Brown paper Dieter #1 said...

Have you tried Harissa? On 30th ave bet. 34th st and 35th st? It's simply amazing. Home cooked meal true to Algerian cooking (I am Algerian). Thanks for posting, I just moved here and love your blog!!! Very helpful.