Sunday, March 14, 2010

Mamacita Pizzeria - Not all that it seems...

Having lived in Lancaster for a few years now, I’ve found that a little digging unearths some great secrets that are tucked into the folds of this hip, up-and-coming city.

My latest find is Samir at Mamacita Pizzeria on E King St.  It’s one of the nicer pizzerias I’ve ever entered, with its golden color-washed walls and modern sconces adding warmly to the décor.  Then you spy the poker-gaming counter unit, and you’re reminded of its casual pizzeria status.

I didn’t go there for the pizza or for the subs, though.  Kids and Culture, an interesting, culturally-minded group in Lancaster worth following, highlighted Samir in one of their newsletters for his Moroccan food, available on Wednesday evenings.  Moroccan?  I LOVE Moroccan!  When can we go?

On a frigid Wednesday evening, we found ourselves sitting at the countertop bar.  Every so often a customer would come in and order a sandwich or grab their takeout pizza.  But otherwise, we, alone, were dining in that night.

“We’re here for your Moroccan food,” we proclaimed. 

“Oh!  Okay.  Well, I have a chicken dish and a beef dish, and I made some sides…” he relayed.

“We’ll try it all.”  Ordering had never been easier.

Samir disappeared to the back of his kitchen and emerged with plates emitting some marvelous aromas.  Tender cubes of beef had been stewed with prunes, raisins, caramelized onions, and over 25 different spices, resulting in a richly dark gravy that was ladled over light and fluffy couscous ($7.25).  A single taste revealed both a salty-sweet sensation that I found to be wonderfully complementary.  The stew was of perfect viscosity that blended with the couscous in a ratio that allowed for every single bite to have a bit of couscous, a bit of the sauce, and not a single drop of either was wasted.  

The 25 different spices?  Samir smiled and waved a hand over it, “you know, regular Moroccan spices that I order from Morocco, but I had to substitute some spices for others that I could find here.”  When I was a kid, I would escape to the rest of the world through my father’s subscription of National Geographic.  There was nothing like the vibrant and varied colors of a Moroccan spice market.  Those are the pictures I carefully detached to keep in my scrap book.  Don’t tell my dad.

A nicely portioned leg and thigh of a chicken was braised with preserved lemons, green olives and onions, then served over Basmati rice that, had you been in Morocco, would have been infused with Saffron, but in Lancaster, PA, was infused with turmeric, resulting in that characteristic yellow hue.  Now, preserved lemons are special.  They are, to me, the piece de resistance of Middle Eastern cooking, and I’m amazed everytime I eat them.  Whole lemons are preserved in salt and their own juice and left to macerate until even the rinds are edible.  Since the rind and pith are so much a part of the process, it’s like getting the juice and zest, and I find you get something more wholly lemon than when working with a fresh lemon.  This savory dish was subtly tart from the lemons and turmeric, briny from the olives, and completely delicious when combined with the moistness of the chicken.

Accompanying the entrees were lentils ($3) and marinated carrots ($2.75).  The lentils were an exact replica to the Ethiopian lentils I had written about a few articles ago, and I came to find out that he had shared his recipe with Gursha.  But of note were the carrots.  They were served chilled and were unlike anything I’ve ever tasted.  Typically Moroccan, they were pickled in a Charmoula marinade - garlic, paprika, cumin, parsley, cilantro, oil, vinegar.  As we were chewing over the wonderment of the mixture, Samir held us in rapt attention with a mini-dissertation on spices, “Cumin and Paprika always go together.  Just one of those pairings that are perfect…” 

Samir’s dream is to open up his own Moroccan restaurant in Lancaster.  His homestyle Moroccan food is just that – homey, good, and comforting.  It’s not fancy – his brother is a trained Moroccan chef in Delaware – but as long as it’s pure and honest, I, for one, am all in support of his dream.

Note: Samir will make Moroccan food anytime – he just needs 24 advance notice…

Mamacita Pizzeria (click for directions)
402 East King Street
Lancaster, PA 17602-3005

(717) 509-6402

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