Little Morocco revives the pop-up3/11/2015
“If Des Moines does not allow unbridled access to food trucks, then the young professional tribe will leave, and this city’s renaissance will be dead and gone.” That mantra has spread now from the manual of hipster talking points to the mainstream media. Here in the local, alternative media, the issue looks to be overstated. This writer travels a lot and has not observed the kind of laissez-faire mobile food town that proponents of food truck liberation claim is already stealing our future. Ann Arbor, Michigan, the trendiest, most high-tech of Midwest towns, has more venture capital and more cafés per capita than any town in Silicon Valley. Food trucks there are strictly regulated to a single “food truck park” that does not directly compete with the restaurant scene. That’s a role model worth emulating, certainly more so than a downtown area where food trucks occupy the parking places in front of independent cafés.
Before food truck obsession, pop-up restaurants and a permanent indoor farmers market were darlings of our scene makers. Those institutions also provided cash-strapped food entrepreneurs an entry-level position in the American dream — the worthiest argument for easing food truck regulations. Taste of Thailand, the restaurant that would lead the East Village revival, began as a pop-up in Little Joe’s Diner on Court Avenue. Café di Scala, one of the city’s best restaurants, evolved from a weekend stall at Metro Market. So let it be with Little Morocco.
Chef Taoufik Essaidi and pastry chef Jenna Irving have been selling ghoribas, briouats, gazelle horns, kikat smidas and other pastries at the Downtown Farmers Market (and through their website www.littlemoroccopatisserie.com) for a couple of years. Last Sunday, they tried their second pop-up restaurant — a completely sold out affair at Red, which is closed on Sundays. Essaidi moved to America after winning a nationwide competition to represent Moroccan cuisine at Disney World. In Des Moines, he worked for Steve Logsdon at Café di Scala before spending most of a decade in Canada. Irving is a pastry chef who was looking for a niche when she met and married Essaidi.
For their recent pop-up, they presented a three-course dinner that represented three distinct regional cuisines of Morocco. Their first course, drawn from Casablanca, featured three salads — firm roasted beets covered in microgreens, olives and chick peas and harissa carrots. Their main course, from Tangiers, was “shorba,” a word that simply means “soup.” If so, all soups should be Tangiers-style. This was a cioppino/bouillabaisse stew of mussels, clams, fish and some of the most delicious shrimp I’ve tasted all winter — all swimming in a harissa rouille.
Their dessert course, highlighting Fez, included a honey semolina cake, a saffron rice pudding that was thicker than what one finds in local Indian cafés, and an almond briouat. Mint tea was served afterward, with little balls of sweetness called “ghoribas.” Service was fast and efficient, a considerable achievement for an understaffed pop-up.
Essaidi said he intends each pop-up menu to be completely different in order to introduce as many dishes as possible to Des Moines before hopefully opening the area’s first Moroccan café. Keep an eye on Little Morocco’s Facebook page for news about future events.
Side Dishes: Pam Patton (Patton’s) will be given an American Dream award this April by the National Restaurant Association’s Education Foundation. The Georgia native’s restaurant defied a lot of established bunk when she opened, east of the state capitol, in 2010. People told her white tablecloth dining and soul food were mutually exclusive and that fine dining was doomed in the La Plaza neighborhood. Her menu and her all-you-can-eat lunch buffets have become word-of-mouth legends. During last year’s Junior Olympics, she was so busy she had to stay open several hours later than usual to accommodate all the out-of-town visitors. CV
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.