Can't travel, no problem! Get a taste of Morocco at one of the best Moroccan restaurants in New York
By: Jessica Allen for The Nopo
When it comes to my mouth, there are few highs as high as the first meal in a new place. I always aim for authenticity whenever I travel and wherever I eat—from Cincinnati chili when visiting my in-laws in Ohio to scooping up bhel puri from a vendor in Mumbai. Often, it’s that initial bite that really and truly lets me know I’ve arrived. Living in New York brings with it all kinds of blessings, but chief among them just might be its myriad of restaurants. So, until I can safely get back on a plane and head to Morocco, I must content myself with getting takeout from the eateries like those listed below. And content myself I do, satiating my wanderlust with couscous and chicken bastilla (thank goodness I can work in sweatpants). What these restaurants have in common, aside from wonderful food, are passionate owners with a connection to North Africa, who seek to proffer a little of the home country to anyone lucky enough to walk through their doors.
A word to the peckish: as New York begins to reopen, restaurants may offer more options, be open during different hours, or may shift their focus or shutter entirely. It might be worth double-checking a restaurant’s website before heading out.
Friday and Saturday, 11:30am to 10pm [takeout and delivery]
Follow the lines—including moi—to Café Mogador, whose locations in Manhattan and Williamsburg are equally adored. The original opened in 1983 and proved so successful that a sister opened in Brooklyn in 2012. Both boast incredible brunches, but frankly you can’t go wrong with any meal at either spot. You’ll likely find me here on sunny Sundays.
Pretty much everything on the menu reflects the original owner’s multihyphenate background: Rivka Orlin was born in Morocco, grew up in Israel, and landed in New York some 40 years ago. Family photos adorn the walls, family recipes infuse the food with an extra dose of love, and today a younger generation of the fam runs the front and back of the house. Try the multitude of mezes (small plates), among them cucumber yogurt, falafel, tabouli, and hummus. And be sure to take away a jar of schug (a spicy sauce) and harissa (a spice mix) to add a little Moroccan ardor to whatever you’re whipping up at home.
For as much as a restaurant can serve as an ambassador, promoting and proselytizing about a place, Nomad is it. Eating here is meant to be a truly transformative experience. The owner, Mehenni Zebentout, sees his East Village restaurant as a portal that transports diners to Morocco without leaving the (212) area code. Think lanterns lit low, embroidered pillows and tapestries, and tables festooned with brass and mosaic. You can see yourself in the uber-polished brass accents. I always do.
As far as the menu goes, it’s all delish. However, a particular standout is the beef and lamb sausage, known as merguez, made on site. How might you try it? Let’s count the ways: laying long and thick over couscous, enveloped in a bun and served with fries, sliced among olives atop a freshly baked, nicely oiled flatbread. That would be Nomad’s take on pizza, or a small way of letting a little bit of the city it calls home into its otherwise otherworldly atmosphere.
Stressful times call for stress-free breakfasts and lunches. And snacks—gotta have plenty of snacks. All the better if these goodies contain superfoods like kale and acai. Enter Pause Café, which draws on owner Amine Sadki’s Moroccan heritage to create great-to-look at, even-greater-to-eat bowls and more. I love a place that lets me both dazzle my feed and makes my body feel good.
At the age of 24, Amine moved from Morocco to New York with a dream of opening a neighborhood coffee shop that looked like his living room. A cafe that encompassed everything he loved. Even the tea kettles were sent over by his mother from home. The result, a warm and inviting space that makes everyone feel at home.
The signature acai bowls mix raspberry, papaya, pitaya, and other fruits with chia seeds, while quinoa bowls feature avocado, dried apricots, kale, and dates. While looks can be deceiving, as anyone scrolling IG can tell you, these bowls totally live up to their appearance. If you’re not feeling a bowl, opt for a one-bite vegan wonder bursting with granola, or customize your own salad or smoothie. Speaking of sipping, Pause Café has a fully functioning coffee bar, serving cappuccinos and cortados, as well as green chai, Moroccan mint tea, and charcoal lattes—just because that one is on trend doesn’t make it any less yummy. Promise.
Open Tuesday through Sunday, 10am to 6pm [takeout]
Essex Street Market has been supporting small businesses—and feeding hungry hordes—since 1888, when it was just a group of pushcarts on the Lower East Side. A renovation in 2019 made space for new places and faces, including Zerza; it also created one of the city’s most winning food halls.
Zerza offers up traditional Moroccan fare, such as msemen (a flatbread drizzled with butter and honey) and freekeh (a hearty grain similar to bulgur). As you’d expect, tagines feature prominently: named for the pot in which it’s simmered, tagine is a robust slow-cooked stew, spiced with cumin and cinnamon. Here it comes loaded with your choice of vegetables, lamb, or chicken. Even better are the restaurant’s boureka, which carefully calibrate sweet and salty by stuffing feta, pine nuts, raisins, spinach, and walnuts into a puff pastry. They’re cute, sure, but, more importantly, you’ll earn the boundless gratitude of your taste buds. I dare you to stop at one; I order in multiples of five, myself.
Once upon a time, in the days before Covid, the Nolita location of Café Gitane was the ne plus ultra of celebrity hangouts. Indeed, one of its most popular, and beloved, items was avocado toast, the ne plus ultra of celebrity eats. These days, of course, famous folk—just like the rest of us—are mostly getting deliveries to eat on the couch. No matter, you can still slip on your favorite heels while digging into the French-Moroccan fare for which Café Gitaneis known. Even better, the restaurant uses compostable takeaway containers made from sugarcane.
If avocado toast is too 2019 for you, try the baked feta, adorned with thyme, tomatoes, olives, and capers, or the organic meatballs spiced with turmeric and cooled with cucumber-yogurt. And you’ll want to tack on an order of warm bread pudding with whipped cream and chocolate sauce. Très bon!