Mamounia Is Moroccan for Morrocans

When you finally visit Mamounia, do not under any circumstances go alone. Everyone will give you a quizzical look if you do. You'll be the uncomfortable center of attention from the moment you get out of your car (in an enclosed parking lot facing the front of the restaurant). And when you enter the dark place, you'll discover all the seating is either couches, pillows or tables for four. Even the men who run the restaurant will gawk, thinking you're a salesperson or a tourist lost on the way to Disneyland.

Moroccan cuisine is probably the most communal available in Orange County, one always presented with much pomp and in family-sized portions. Mamounia is no different, and the restaurant is mostly set up for nighttime, when the disco-ball lighting and Moroccan techno music finally makes sense, and the hookahs come up, creating a haze and allure out of Casablanca. But rather than offer only exotic gimmickry, Mamounia is a rarity: a Moroccan place for Moroccans, where OC's sizable community can relax and order their homeland favorites à la carte and belly-dancing isn't some artifact, but rather living, jiggling culture.

The menu seems to have been pulled back recently—the multicourse dinners that were available most of this year have disappeared in favor of entrées and appetizers. But, oh, those flavors: cumin and sugar and untold others, slow-cooked so everything melds into one soft, spectacular meal. The chicken tagine is so tender that just placing a slice of khobz (Moroccan flatbread, similar to pita but twice as thick and heartier) on the hen without pinching it results in full chunks coming off. Couscous becomes revelatory instead of a foodie heresy; the bastilla, that strange sweet-savory meal of chicken and powdered sugar, is pancake-sized, yet packs enough heft to serve as a full meal.

And if you do show up late? The owners will take special care to explain the menu, to suggest meals and to check up on you for refills. And when they ask if you want more sugar in the mint tea, politely decline: The stuff is already sweet enough to induce a Peter Max-worthy trip-out—halal version, of course.


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