When you’re told you’re going Long Beach, California, on a business trip for a few days, you react to the news with the slightest hint of inconvenience and professional self-sacrifice. At least on the outside that’s how you act. On the inside, you’re pretty much singing and dancing. Is there such a thing as an undesirable foodie destination in California? I think not.
Once the travel arrangements were set, my only concern was whether my travel companions were adventuresome eaters, anxious to hit the streets in search of exotic flavors or cautious eaters who are happy with the safe fare of a predictable hotel restaurant. I discovered I was in for a good time when my coworker T. suggested Asha Moroccan and Mediterranean Kitchen for our first dinner in Long Beach. I certainly liked her before the trip, and now I liked her even more.
I think every TV foodie personality I’ve ever watched has covered the Moroccan tajeen. I’ve salivated from my couch as Andrew Zimmern and Anthony Bourdain each sat in intimate kitchens savoring the delicate meats, vegetables and flavors in this traditional Moroccan dish. When I found tajeens on the menu at Asha, I was beside myself with foodie joy. I was about to have a close encounter with a dish that’s long been on my culinary bucket list.
There are many, many delectable dishes on the menu at Asha, and it was really tempting to indulge in some vegetarian couscous, but I knew deep down that I couldn’t pass up this rare opportunity for a tajeen. Before departing for Long Beach, I had declared my trip to be a personal four-day seafood extravaganza. The options for tajeens included chicken, lamb and seafood–once again my foodie guardian angels had my back.
T. and I placed our orders enthusiastically and with great anticipation. The first little touch of flavorfulness arrived in the bottle of water our waitress brought. It contained a cinnamon stick, infusing an ordinary bottle of water with a hint of happy cinnamon. That was a nice touch. Next our waitress arrived with a complimentary assortment of wild cucumber pickles, laban (a yogurt-based dip) and pita chips. The cucumber pickles added good crunch and a salty, tangy flavor to our meal. The laban, which is sprinkled with sumac and other secret herbs, was cool and subtle.
When the waitress placed the shiny, white tajeen pot before me, I could hardly contain my excitement. She quickly removed the chimney-like lid, which made me a little sad, as I wanted to admire its graceful lines for a moment and uncover the contents with the pomp befitting a bucket-list event.
This lovely dish lived up to all the anticipation. The stew was a subtle yet flavorful soup, perfect for mixing with the accompanying couscous. The vegetables (potatoes, tomatoes, green pepper and green beans) were delectably tender, as was the salmon hiding at the bottom, patiently waiting to be discovered. Asha serves tajeen with a very generous serving of couscous, so you can be sure to capture every bit of the stew.
When a server came by at the end of the meal to clear our plates, he started to ask if everything had been satisfactory, but he stopped midsentence when he caught a glimpse of my empty tajeen and how it looked as if I had licked it clean. I felt a big chagrined, but I didn’t need to–a plate that clean is a compliment to the chef.
T. and I both found Asha so wonderful that we swore we would return, and so, two days later, our palates led us back to our new food home for lunch. I took our waiter’s suggestion and tried the chicken tawook–a house favorite. His recommendation was a good one. The lunch portion was a single skewer of grilled chicken on a bed of basmati rice. For a side, I chose the Asha salad, which was a delicious mix of roma tomatoes, cucumbers, avocadoes, onions and cilantro tossed with lemon juice and lots of black and white pepper. Again, our every reasonably-priced lunches were served with the complimentary plate of pickles, laban and pita chips.
After this second meal at Asha, I knew that this great little restaurant in the East Village was the kind of place I could never get enough of. As soon as you waddle out the door, food endorphins flowing, you just want to turn around and go back in for more.
A few years ago I had genetic testing done by a direct-to-consumer testing company and was surprised to discover that my genes are 66% similar with people in northern Africa–specifically the early inhabitants of current Morocco. Perhaps my fascination with this part of the globe arises from something primal and basic in my nature. I consider my two wonderful meals at Asha to be appetizers–whetting my appetite for a trip I hope to make to wander the streets of Marrakesh with unknown relatives and dine on delicacies from a distant homeland.
© Sherry Burns and sushipoet.wordpress.com, 2012.