The University City restaurant reinvents itself with a food truck.
One of the great benefits of our growing food-truck infatuation is that it allows a chef to dial in on a specific aspect of a cuisine and explore it in depth. When it’s done right, a food truck affords visitors the chance to really delve into the minutiae of how small tweaks here and there impact a particular preparation. Last summer, for example, Scott Dogs—when you could find it—offered a crisp, delicious tutorial in all aspects of the frank: it’s casing, its filling, its accouterments.
Now, we have Marrakesh Express, the food-truck incarnation of the University City Moroccan restaurant that vanished last spring. This is the other advantage of food trucks—they allow restaurants and chefs to reappear without all the overhead of rent, staffing and the rest.
Unlike his restaurant, Brahim Ighladen’s truck eschews the more traditional menu items he made his name with, and focuses on that most emblematic street food of the Middle East and the Maghreb: shawarma.
Chicken shawarma is one of the most impressive, the perfume of cardamom in its ras el-hanout spicing lending the tender chunks of meat a sense of mystery. But success here is about more than just the seasoning: The chicken itself is expertly cooked, brought to a point of succulence but not falling apart.
Tilapia—that overused, often depressingly boring fish—arrives the vivid yellow color of an egg yolk, its turmeric and paprika mixing with a garlic yogurt sauce and creating an unexpectedly festive aesthetic. These are the flavor combinations of a man who intimately understands each component he’s working with.
Beef and lamb shawarma is also a success, a gamy, charry, intense handful that highlights the necessity of the acidic little cornichons its served with. They provide a framing device, allowing the seasoning Ighladen’s mother helped him perfect back home in Morocco to really peek through.
Too bad the Philly cheesesteak shawarma is such a disappointment in context. Really, it should have been a stunner; the concept seemed like a no-brainer. But this was a case of more-is-less, the American cheese getting lost in the mix, the beef underseasoned, the whole less than the sum of its parts.
Falafel, too, could use some more excitement. And by that I mean the falafel balls themselves, which, while technically proficient, didn’t stand out from the background, and were easily overpowered by their accompanying salad. They’re good, whereas so much else here is excellent.
But in general, this is a truck that fills a void in our city’s rolling restaurant world, and does so with more than enough success to warrant a trip and a quick stint in line. The hummus, all lemon-bright and cumin-y, is enough for two or more generous portions. Buy three of these the next time you have a group of friends coming over for a game or a movie, and you’ll be a hero. Baba ghannouj is a silky, subtle take on a preparation that too often bashes you over the head with garlic or smoke: very nice.
And the Moroccan fries—home fries, essentially—are dusted with a spice blend from a business Ighladen’s family has relied on for generations in Morocco. So much of this food is personal, and the care and warmth Ighladen cooks into it shines through with real clarity.
And then there’s the baklava—a buttery, pistachio- centered, almost shortbread-tasting treat the size of a thick matchbook. It’s damn near perfect, neither as sickly sweet as baklava too often is, or so large a portion that you can’t make it all the way through. In that sense, it’s a fairly accurate stand-in for this food truck itself: small and focused and hiding plenty of pleasures inside. (Interestingly, it’s the one item Ighladen doesn’t cook himself.)
There may be no harrira on the menu here, or tagine or any of the other more labor-intensive Moroccan dishes fans of the food typically gravitate toward (many of them, says Ighladen, are coming), but there are plenty of pleasures to be had on this corner. This is a taste of home, even if you’ve never been to North Africa.
40th and Locust sts. 267.844.7283.
Cuisine: Shawarma-centric food truck.
Hours: Mon.-Sat., 11am-6pm.
Price range: Under $7.
Atmosphere: Friendly and casual.
Food: Generally very satisfying.
Service: Accommodating and efficient.
Sriracha and Wine? Yep
PW's Taste of Philly 2014