One of my biggest challenges living in one of America’s most expensive cities has been to discover tasty, affordable eateries. As much as I enjoy dining out, there is no doubt that even those earning six-figures and above still enjoy a bargain. And my criteria for a bargain is the discovery of the $10 lunch; a lunch so ample as to provide left-overs for dinner or one so substantial as to make a later meal irrelevant. Café Zitouna is such a place for me. Located on the corner of Sutter and Polk, This is a little corner place with table seats for about 20 and counter seats for another six or eight. And on a Wednesday afternoon for lunch, it was packed with people waiting to get in — for very good reason.
My companion and I started with Breek (Tunisian crepe), listed as “Tissue-thin malsouka filled with potatoes, parsley, onions, egg, tuna and capers, fried in vegetable oil. Served with lemon.” For $3.95, it was a fabulous starter and I thought it a bit charming that the waiter looked at me with concern, indicating that the egg inside was raw and that I might not eat it. No problem, I assured him. Perfectly golden and plump, the malsouka is house-made and perfectly thin.
I instructed the chef to bring me whatever he thought I should eat and I was served the Vegetable Couscous, enough for two of us to share a separate platter of couscous is topped with a few roasted peppers with a side bowl of earthy, chunky vegetables in a seasoned broth. My companion ordered the Chakchouka Bil Merguez, sautéed fresh tomatoes, bell peppers, onions in olive oil with house-made merguez, eggs, and Tunisian sausages. For $7.95, this dish was a winner as I got a few bites from that dish and am looking forward to returning for a platter of it for my own. I saw a neighboring table get the $9.95 B’stilla which — while thick — looked a bit small (about 6″ round) for the price. But considering how great the rest of the food was tasting, I’m sure I will plunk down a sawbuck at some point in the future.
Dining alone, I will be sticking to the under $10 dishes or ordering a couple of appetizer or salad dishes (most priced in the $4.95 range), but we went a little above my ascribed budget with the inclusion of the Moroccan mint tea — a single 20oz at $1.95 and the large pot that we shared for $4.50. The menu also includes a handful of Shawarma, Kebab, and Merguez sandwiches in the $6.50 range, to which one can add fries for $1.95.
We brought desserts homes; a moist pistachio-topped spice cake that had been soaked with orange blossom water and a second dessert, ladyfingers also soaked with orange blossom water, topped with a rich custard and ground pistachios. The bottom line is that Café Zitouna is all about taste and authenticity. The flavors are rich and aromatic, well-integrated, and enticing. The menu is extensive enough that I can easily see myself returning on a weekly basis to eat through the menu, always knowing I’ll be taking home left-overs. And I am quite happy knowing that when I get a tagine craving, I don’t have to do all the work myself for a solo diner.
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Tags: b'stilla, bargain, bell peppers, Breek, Brik, budget, cake, caper, Chakchouka, egg, eggs, kebab, lemon, Lunch, malsouka, Marguez, merguez, Middle Eastern, mint, Moroccan, onion, onions, orange blossom water, pistachio, potato, San Francisco, shawarma, tea, tomato, tuna, Tunisian, vegetarian