Pop philosophy is filled with proclamations that nothing, especially people, ever really changes.
Five years ago I thought I had proven this quackery wrong, and had made a significant change.
I moved from Cairo to New York.
Things HAD changed, both good and bad.
Good: My personal life no longer involved navigating the morality and sleeping habits of doormen.
Bad: I traded my Garden City duplex apartment with a wrap-around terrace for month-to-month sublets at extortionate rates next to literal trash factories in Brooklyn (but if the wind was blowing west you’d pick up the sugary zephyrs of the Mexican bakery down the street. God is merciful, at times)
However, five years on, I look around and realize that in fact things don’t change as much as we think. We find ways, consciously and subconsciously, to come back to and recreate the things we love no matter where we are.
I live in New York’s Garden City (Brooklyn Heights). While I lack a wrap-around balcony, I do have an illegal roof deck with a posh view of the Statue of Liberty (it peeks over the highway that I also have a view of). I walk down New York’s Qasr al-Aini (Atlantic Ave) every day, where I’m able to buy termis (lupini beans) — it’s still painful to buy what amounts to a free natural resource in Cairo — and eat Yemeni food. I did my Christmas shopping on Brooklyn’s Talaat Harb (Fulton Mall).
But there was one major, unbridged difference between my lives in Cairo and New York: there was no readily accessible taamiya or liver, besides the restaurant run by the eccentric Alexandrian on Steinway in Queens, which I quite enjoyed but which made my other ex-Cairene friends violently ill.
The record of life keeps spinning, and eventually the needle in the record player hits a groove filled with fava beans and torshi. Late last year, I received a text message from a friend with a picture of a storefront on Lafayette and Kenmare with giant Arabic writing on it. Nothing ever truly changes; there is a Zooba in Lower Manhattan.
Zooba’s location is prime and ambitious. In a city where something like 80 percent of restaurants fail and even the most successful and popular ones are regularly driven out by increases in rent, Zooba lies in one of the most expensive outposts in the heart of Nolita (North of Little Italy). Having raised $4 million to open this restaurant, Zooba seems to be making it clear that this isn’t some cute side project. As I approach the restaurant there is another cosmic sign that Egypt has continued to follow me, and that fortune may shine down on Zooba, in the shape of a massive ad for fashion brand Saint Laurent featuring Rami Malek. Zooba and Rami, here to make it in the Big Apple.
With a bright neon sign and a classic door that looks like it could be directly from the old city, Zooba is inviting. I’m excited. My heart rate is rising in anticipation. I enter.
As I walk in it feels cinematic. The kitchen is bustling, patrons are eating, and a song I never thought I’d hear out loud in New York, “2add w 2add” by Swag Lee, is blasting from the speakers. A rendition of a sabat — the ubiquitous basket hanging from windows and balconies, ready to send or receive items as — ” adorns the wall next to the entrance. The counters are hand-painted to look like a fuul cart. The lights above the kitchen mimic a Nile felucca’s neon shimmer. Zooba feels like they took every “wouldn’t it be cool if (insert Cairo place) made this one little tweak” comment and actually put it into action. The result is impressive. It is, in fact, pretty cool.
The menu is plentiful and well laid out. Hawashi’s on the left, taamiya’s in the middle, fuul and sides on the right. There are helpful explanations under the menu options, and even a side panel that explains further intricacies (a picture of bessara with “Not Hummus” printed over it). Despite the menu’s simplicity, the two advertising bros in front of me wearing those winter hats that don’t actually cover your ears and thus in my mind render them useless, are perplexed. They stand in front of the menu, they approach the register, they back off again, they come back, they argue with each other, it feels like the record is skipping. They are ruining the flow of emotions that I’m feeling as they try and figure out what to eat. (To be clear, they aren’t actually confused about the food itself. They are having a crisis over whether they want a cheese or spicy hawashy). I offer to help. They decline, but decide they need more time and move apart to allow me to order.
I feel like Stone Cold Steve Austin listing out his beverage choices as I order the koshary, a taamiya sandwich, a liver sandwich, a baladi salad, a cheese hawashi, and a hibiscus limeade. I am hungry, I am determined, I am nervous.
In my opinion, liver is best fresh from the griddle. So, not wanting them to cool down too much, this is where my quest begins. Wading through the threshold of baladi bread my tastebuds are given a lustful kiss on both cheeks by the excellent kebda. Chewy and velvety, smooth not crumbly, full of that nutty aftertaste that makes liver sandwiches more than just a pile of organs from Nebraska. An easy 4/5 Mangas.
Full disclosure: I’ve never had life-changing taamiya. I understand that it is “not falafel” but all in all I always viewed taamiya as something I ate when I was in a hurry or broke. I rarely thought to myself, “Man, can’t wait to wade through a sea of people to hand my order slip to the elevated taamiya maker wearing sunglasses indoors.” With that said, Zooba’s taamiya is pretty decent! (The Manga Scale Sub Rankings: Bad, Meh, Ok, Decent, Pretty Decent, Very Decent, Fantastic). The baladi bread is fluffy but doesn’t steal the show and holds everything together well. The salad inside is crisp and fresh. The taamiya is a bit dry, but serviceable. Overall, this would be a solid lunch. 3.5/5 Mangas.
Two sandwiches in and my gauntlet is almost halfway done. Mahraganat music begins to play from the speakers. I am perspiring.
I pull the bowl in front of me and attempt the *perfect bite*, that is, getting bits of the macaroni, vermicelli, lentils, sauce, chickpeas and fried onion all in one motion and into my gusset. Again, it’s pretty decent! I always thought koshary didn’t make all that much sense in Cairo: on a 95 degree day the last thing I wanted was a big ole bowl of carbs. But in New York, on a night where the temperature is just about freezing, it’s perfect. Hearty, with a sauce that has a chunky texture to it, and perfectly fried onions. Had I not been dining alone it might have been even better. 3.5/5 Mangas.
The steaming sandwich waits before me as the final boss to be conquered. I take a breath and sip my hibiscus limeade, which is fantastic (5/5 Mangas) and try to decipher what it says in Arabic on the staff’s hats. “Too later?” “Ala tuuleeta?.” I realize it’s “Nolita.” Clever. I bite into the hawashi that has cooled down to a manageable temperature for my mouth, which in my excitement I burned on the kebda.
Divine. The beef is juicy, the cheese is melted so that it is not so much “running” as it is having a gentle saunter on the corniche. You and this sandwich, chew by chew, looking out onto the Nile Tower, slightly buzzed from some ouzo, perfectly at peace. It is no wonder that this is by far the most popular dish that I witness customers ordering (that and ‘Pita Cheeseburger’ — a pretty easy concept to understand for people intimidated by the liver.) 5/5 Mangas.
At the end of my meal I am so full that I think to myself “How did Farouk live like this?” I exit Zooba and make my way to sing “I want it that way” at karaoke.
Tuesday evening comes and it is time for me to take on the rest of Zooba’s menu.
When I walk back in, the same staff member is working the register. I approach full of pride, thinking he’d greet me with some kind of reverence after the intensely strong order I placed last time, perhaps with: “He’s here! The Kebda King!”. Instead, he just smiles and asks what he can get me, because I am not the Kebda King, and because Zooba is actually quite popular which means he serves hundreds of faces a day. He rightfully doesn’t have time to remember the dude that pretended he was meeting five other people and ordered accordingly, and then ended up dining alone.
Pickled Lemon Taamiya.
At the end of the last meal, feeling khedivally bloated and with gout onsetting, I did think to myself “You know, Gabi, it’s really a shame they don’t have dessert.” The cosmos, or some sort of cumin-scented djinn, must have been listening because as I complete my order this time my eyes fall upon a stack of 20 or so individually packaged items. “Are those….” I ask Zaki (the cashier) “Rice pudding,” he says, finishing my sentence. “Want to try one?” As a former staffer of Mada Masr might have put it “Oh … heaven”.
My meal arrives.
Delicious. Thick but light and fluffy, with a gentle dusting (think of your laptop when you leave it by an open window for a couple of hours) of dukka. The beet hibiscus tahina dipping sauce that goes with them is so good that even if this restaurant were in Midtown (New York’s Mohandiseen) it would be worth the journey. 4.5/5 Mangas.
Beautifully plated. The chefs take care to craft the baladi salad along the edges and drizzle a pleasant zig zag of tahina on top of it. The fuul has a smooth and creamy texture, and importantly comes with enough bread to lap it up with. Having to eat the last of your fuul with your hands is a degrading (but worthwhile) experience that I hope no one has to endure. It’s good, but it’s not psychedelic vision-inducing the way other items on the menu are. 3.5/5 Mangas.
A perfect mix of tart and cool. The only thing that could make it better would be if I were drinking it next to the pool at the Semiramis, hopefully without breathing in tear gas. 4.75/5 Manga’s.
Last on my plate is the pickled lemon taamiya. My expectations, based on the previous visit, are not all that high. I have no idea what this sandwich has in store for me.
Pickled Lemon Taamiya:
I bite in and for a moment time slows down. The lights of the kitchen meld into the prehistoric hill of Moqattam, splitting in two and spewing out a neon volcano of culinary emotion. This taamiya, far from dry, is hot and perfectly moist. The pickled lemon merges into the bite to bring a cool and sweet/sour that steadies your felucca of flavor as you enter into the Nile of taste. This is the best thing on the menu, this is the best taamiya I have ever had. 5/5 Mangas.
I pull the rice pudding closer, though I’m not sure eating more food is a great idea. It is carefully sprinkled with pistachios and shredded coconut. Despite my fears, it serves as a comforting end to my meal, relieving me of the overly salty cave that my mouth might have become. It’s not amazing, but it is very decent. 3.75/5 Mangas.
As I finish my dessert I notice a man enter the restaurant and head straight into the kitchen. He looks suspiciously like the regal figure featured on the faux newspaper that all Zooba sandwiches are wrapped in. I point to him, I point to the image of him on the paper, he nods to say “Yup, that’s me.” It is Mostafa al-Refaey, the head chef and co-owner. We pose to recreate the famous Abu Tarek chin hold, and I let him know how great his restaurant is.
When I left Zooba the first time I thought to myself, “That was pretty decent!” but couldn’t help thinking that I might be viewing the experience through khamaseen tinted glasses of nostalgia as memories of Cairo rushed through me. Upon leaving the second time, I can say that there is enough on Zooba’s menu to indeed render it fantastic.
There is only one thing that Zooba is missing: Stella, the Egyptian lager. Given they have a beer license and serve local brews and wine, a call to import from Al Ahram Beverage Company must be heeded.
But even without the World’s Best Room Temperature Beer™, Zooba is still more than worth a visit whether it brings you visions, a good vegan lunch, or the best liver I’ve had in New York.