Mazag Cafe delivers a taste of Egypt in the Italian Market

Posted: March 31, 2011

DAHLIA OSMAN had a dream - to leave corporate life and open a small cafe. Two-and-a-half years ago, that dream became a reality in Mazag Cafe, on 10th Street in the Italian Market.

The Egyptian native was formerly an account manager in fiber communications, an experience she says prepared her to own a restaurant by teaching her financial skills and the ability to deal with unexpected problems.

Osman says mazag means "good mood" in Arabic. In general that's what you'll find here. Recently, she revamped the menu to make Mazag more of a cafe than a restaurant.

I was happy to hear she is keeping the Wednesday-night special, Koshary ($5), a favorite Egyptian street food. This is a simple blend of rice and lentils cooked together, then tossed in a spicy tomato sauce with pasta and garnished with blackened fried onions. Nearly incinerating the onions adds great flavor and texture to the dish.

My guests and I also enjoyed the Stuffed Grape Leaves ($4 for four) served with a mint-yogurt dip. These are hand-rolled using medium-grain rice, which made them rough-hewn and texturally pleasing. So much so, I was convinced there was meat in them, but there wasn't.

Vegetarians, enjoy!

The Lebanese Salad ($6.50) was a bit of a disappointment - just romaine lettuce, chickpeas, red pepper, olives and red onion. It seemed a little overpriced, even with the recent rise in produce prices.

With the new menu emphasizing wraps and panini, we went for the unusual combination of Mozzarella, Tomato and Fresh Mint ($5.50). As with the dip for the Stuffed Grape Leaves, the mint here is dried until fresh is available. Still, the sandwich had a delightful mint overtone, and although tomatoes aren't in season, the heat of the panini press helped cook them. The bread was toasty perfect.

Soups are also offered, and although we found the Egyptian Barley ($3.50) lacking in flavor and salt, the Lentil ($3.50) was rich and creamy, defying even my carnivore taste buds in its vegan simplicity.

This is a cafe, so the coffee needs to be good. Sadly, the Turkish coffee ($3) would barely be recognized as such even though it was served in the traditional glass cup with a decorative holder. Turkish coffee needs to be sweet sludge. This was weak even by Folgers' instant standards.

The Cappuccino ($3, $3.50 large) passed muster, with a rich coffee underneath a mountain of milk foam.

While the Baklava ($1.26) was tasty, it was slightly soggy and didn't have those crispy, flaky, buttery layers with just enough sweetness that I fell in love with recently at Manakeesh in University City.

Surprisingly, the sweet I did fall in love with was an imported cookie from Saudi Arabia called Maamoul ($1.75). It's a buttery crust surrounding a date or fig filling. The not-too-sweet dried fruit truly put the "new" in Fig Newton.

Although Osman brings in croissants and a variety of other baked goods, I wanted to stick to the Egyptian breakfast fare. I liked the Fava Beans ($4.50), a dish of whole beans seasoned lightly with olive oil and cumin, but for my taste there was too much red onion.

I think the next time I'll opt for Belila ($3.50). The menu describes it as Egyptian oatmeal, but it's really whole wheat with milk, brown sugar and cinnamon.

And definitely don't miss the Sahlab ($3.50). This hot beverage is a Middle Eastern favorite made from dried and ground orchid root and milk cooked to almost pudding consistency and topped with pistachios. It is considered to improve the immune system. Perhaps that's why, on the cold, rainy day of our visit, one of my guests called it "a delicious takeaway memory."

In the warmer weather, the Lemonade ($3) should be most refreshing. Osman makes it the Egyptian way, mixing the whole fruit in the blender with some sugar. Sometimes she adds fresh mint or raspberries.

Look for sidewalk tables as spring gets firmly situated. Mazag is across the street from the Italian Market's bocce-ball court, making it the perfect perch for watching the elder gents finesse their game. Should you need a refresher on the rules, a complete set is painted on the cafe's restroom wall.

This isn't the kind of fare that demands a planned trip, but Mazag Cafe offers a respite from the hustle of the Italian Market.

And I can forgive the missteps, because this is a small, family business bringing a taste of an immigrant's home to a new American audience. That's what originally made the Italian Market and, in my mind, is the good mood of the neighborhood no matter the language.

Lari Roebling has been expressing her opinion about food ever since her first bite (according to her mother). She produces multimedia pieces for WHYY and is the author of "Endangered Recipes." Contact her at larirob@gmail.com.

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