*THIS RESTAURANT HAS CLOSED*
I try to make my life a study of hi-lo as much as possible. Nothing quite like doing a posh champagne tasting at the Ritz, followed up by a drink down the street at the Tunnel Top and then an emergency quesadilla. Or oysters at Zuni Café with the 'mos and then beers on the Zeitgeist patio with the dogs on a rare sunny Sunday. Hi-lo, baby. A few weeks back I had dinner at Cortez one night and La Folie on another, with a humble but delicious dinner at ~TAJINE~ sandwiched right in the middle. Tajine is actually right around the corner from Cortez, on Jones Street, but it's seriously another world. Man, Jones Street is like zombie headquarters. (Just so you know what you're getting into here.)
This Moroccan place is truly the picture of a hole-in-the-wall, and probably seats eleven people max. There's a little niche to the right that feels a touch cozier with some pillows, or there's a row of two-tops that flank the open kitchen. Chef Mohamed Ghaleb will probably grin at you when you walk in, silently congratulating you for making it past the nondescript and dingy exterior, and his pal might be helping out as host. The friendly Mohamed was previously behind the wheel of a cab and driving for a car service company, but is now fulfilling his dream, which is cooking up some killer couscous and kebabs. Lucky us.
First up, warm yourself up with the harira soup ($3.50), a flavorful lentil soup chock-full of spices. Hearty. Homey. Especially delish with the fresh sesame-studded bread (khobz) that arrives at the table (complimentary, because that's how they are).
We fully attacked the classic chicken bastilla ($6.75), layers of flaky phyllo dough stuffed with chicken, almonds, and egg, and then dusted with powdered sugar and cinnamon. Ours arrived with a whimsical tic-tac-toe design on top. Everyone wins, because it's scrumptious. (There's also a vegetarian version offered.)
There are specials offered each night—we dug into a flavorful stew-like dish of white beans with chunks of Merguez sausage. Another dish we tried was the lamb couscous ($8.50), a savory blend of winter vegetables and fall-off-the-bone lamb on a bed of fluffy couscous. It's not spicy, but chock full of flavor. Actually, all the food is. Oh, and all the meats are Halal (which means permissible under Islamic law).
Speaking of what's permissible, there is no booze offered, but you can BYOB (no corkage). We brought some wine, or there's the liquor store next door. Tajine is also open for lunch, with an array of sandwiches like lamb, chicken, or kufta kebab, and of course, more of that Merguez sausage. All sandwiches come with fries and shalada (tomatoes, onion, and garlic sautéed in olive oil) for $6.95. Score.
For dessert, we ordered a pot of hot and sweet mint tea with our shpakia ($2.75), a sticky and sweet pastry soaked in honey with almond and sesame seeds. My favorite touch: our hands were sprinkled with rosewater before returning to the gritty outside.
So, the ambiance. What can I say, it's real. No frills, baby. The TV had a variety show on, so there was our music. Neighborhood couples happily dig into the tajines (there are two), pals of Mohamed swing by to say hi, and by the end of dinner, you'll be a pal too. It's a swell destination if you're in a "I don't feel like cooking/I'm feeling exploratory/I don't want to spend a lot of cash" mood. Dinner came to $32, with enough leftovers for lunch for two the next day. Since Tajine is cash only, we easily paid up our bill with two yuppie food stamps, done. Next, a Merguez sausage sandwich for lunch. I'll report back.
NOTE: I just found out Mohamed is closing Tajine for one week, doing a small remodel of the seating and the counter, and should be open again on Monday, April 3.
552 Jones St.
Cross: Geary St.
San Francisco, CA 94102