A culturally important restaurant I wish were still around: Canton’s Tangier’s Bistro — popular and important preservation of Sephardic Jewish tradition [classic article]

Much has been written about the new Moroccan restaurant in Canton, Tangier’s Bistro… but not enough about the rich heritage of the cuisine, and the amazing culture behind it. Moroccan-born owner Alan Suissa has created the menu straight from his mom’s and grandmother’s home cooking and is a proud Sephardic Jew. Sephardic Jews are those descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jews who were able to flee the Spanish Inquisition and Portugese expulsions at the end of the 16th century. The Sephardic people gave birth to such cultural heavyweights as Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli and Justice Benjamin Cardozo. One of my favorite books is about the history of the Sephardic people: The Grandees.

One of the places where they found safe haven was North Africa, including Morocco. Moroccan Arabs long had a culture where the social center is the market, part of which is shopping for the freshest food daily. Imagine the Sephardic tradition that meets the Moroccan tradition all on the front steps of the trade routes, the spice routes, the silk road. You think your corner grocery store is so clever for including raisins, nuts, and fruits with meat or chicken salad? Interesting uses of spices and sugar? The Sephardim (as they are known in the plural in English) have been doing it for more than 500 years. In keeping with Biblical practices, traditional Sephardic dishes and meals do not mix meat with dairy. I was very happy to try some specialties from Tangier’s Bistro’s menu.

Tangier’s was packed on an early Sunday night — so you might want to call in for reservations at this instantly popular hot spot. It’s comfortable and casual, with classic rock playing in the background. No, it’s not gimmicky and doesn’t come off like a stage set for Lawrence of Arabia. However, every detail is quietly looked after. Bar snacks include mixed gourmet nuts and pickled, garlicky veggies. Their sangria is a traditional recipe — no hard liquor, but rather wine, soda, fruit juices, fresh fruit, and clove! The light, refreshing spiciness truly goes with the food.

I sampled a few salads and vegetarian cold mezze plates. Tangier’s Bistro, has a number of vegetarian specialties. The items were so good together, I hope they put a sampler plate on the menu. Items at the restaurant are very well plated. Each vegetable salad had its own seasonings, its own texture, its own flavor profile. So fresh and colorful! The fried spicy eggplant had true “meatiness” to it and would satisfy vegetarians and carnivores alike. It’s seasoned with preserved lemon, pealed peppers, red oil, and a touch of white vinegar. The tchouktchouka is a very rich veggie dish of stewed plum tomatoes, green and red bell peppers, garlic & Moroccan spice.

A special that makes appearances at Tangier’s Bistro is the Moroccan couscous. Cooked in a traditional tangine, the steaming allows for fluffy — not clumpy — couscous. The bistro adds a traditional Moroccan mix of almonds, hazelnuts, butternut squash, acorn squash, apricots, prunes, and cumin. It’s lightly sweet, naturally rich in flavor, and yet, still savory. The fruits are tender and absorb the exotic seasonings.

Chicken cooked in a tangine is simply outstanding. Garnished with slices of red and green raw pepper and cooked with lots of plump green olives, it’s rendered very tender, juicy, and flavorful.

In the category of “specialty mezze,” include briouates cigars: crunchy triangular shaped with ground beef
crunchy cylinder shaped with seasoned ground beef and parmentier: golden mashed potatoes square, with a filling of slow roasted spiced beef. They’re both crispy, pack a punch of flavor, and make the perfect drinking companions. They’re served with harissa which — whew! — is a hot chili paste. While each North African house tends to have its own secret recipe as to specific peppers and seasonings, it’s generally a hot pepper pureed with olive oil.

Tangier’s Bistro desserts include some very traditional sweets with authentic ingredients like rose water, date paste, coconut, marzipan. Do not forget to order some Moroccan mint tea service for 2, seriously. You might think you have some Celestial Seasonings, or what-not, sitting at home and can duplicate the deal. Um, nope. They intensely brew fresh mint and green tea to a whole new drink unto itself. It’s served in a silver pot with a tea cozy that looks like a traditional Moroccan man wearing a fez. So cute!

For those temperate evenings that are hopefully on the horizon, Tangier’s Bistro has attractive outdoor seating.

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