In Houston, diners are hard-pressed to come up with a gap in the city’s diverse and thriving restaurant scene. For years, the obvious chasm was Morocco-shaped, but no more. In the second week of April, chef-owner Hicham Nafaa opened Alhambra Café at 8383 Westheimer Road, and it’s brought a truly vibrant array of exciting Moroccan dishes to a city that has long pined for them.
Nafaa’s name may spark memories for diners. He owned Saffron, the upscale spot that served his native fare from 2005 until 2010. He says that he had to wait for Houstonian palates to catch up to his cuisine. “The city of Houston is getting more diverse. In the ‘90s, people had no idea where Morocco was,” he says of arriving from Rabat to attend San Jacinto College in 1998.
Besides time, he hopes that a change in format will ensure Alhambra’s success. “Saffron was expensive. It was a destination. Here it’s different. It’s a casual, any day thing,” he says. Entrée prices cap at $19.99 for seafood paella, but most are priced at $12.99. All are available seven days a week, except couscous, which the chef serves only on Friday, as is common in Moroccan homes.
Such ties to tradition are among Alhambra’s many hookah-scented Old World charms. From 11 a.m. until 1 a.m., a baker ceaselessly turns out fresh bread from a pizza oven at one side of the dining room. It’s Nafaa’s own creation, somewhere between thin pita and fluffy Moroccan khobz. Nafaa says that he learned to cook from his mother, but his recipes are resolutely his own. The chef foresees eventually expanding the menu, particularly the tagine dishes, far beyond the current scope. Some off-menu eats are already staples.
Before making the trek to Alhambra Cafe, take a look at the restaurant’s most compelling (and most popular) dishes.
“Even the most skilled women in Morocco at cooking can’t all make it,” Nafaa says of pastilla. The pastry is one of the country’s most iconic dishes, but both technique with layers of phyllo dough and balancing its sweet and savory elements make it a challenge. Alhambra’s version layers shredded chicken with egg and almond in a thick, round pie. The meaty filling is offset with an artful dusting of powdered sugar and cinnamon, lending the dish its trademark profile somewhere between dinner and dessert.
Prune Lamb Tagine
It could be argued that the tagine, a style of dish named for the uniquely shaped pottery in which it’s cooked, is Morocco’s greatest invention. This dish is almost certainly Nafaa’s magnum opus. It sounds simple: A lamb shank braised for precisely three-and-a-half hours, served with prunes. But the lamb and fruit are cooked separately, and before serving, the braising liquid is reduced to a silken viscosity that resembles demi-glace. Diners won’t be able to resist sopping up every bit of the rich, fruity sauce.
Merguez Sausage Plate
Nafaa doesn’t trust anyone but himself to make his signature sausage. He stuffs skinny lamb casing with beef that’s seasoned with a heavy dose of cumin and chile. For each entrée portion, he grills five links until they’re tiger-striped by the grill, then tops them with melting caramelized onions. Diners choose sides, with options including fries, rice, tabbouleh, hummus, baba ghanoush and salad, but no matter what, the sausages are served over a thin layer of bread that becomes irresistibly soaked in their spicy juices.
It’s no use looking for this dish on the menu. Like many of the restaurant’s most popular specialties, guests learned of this one from Alhambra’s Facebook page, and it quickly became a hit. Combining meatballs with baked eggs in a Moroccan-spiced tomato sauce, it’s an unlikely take on shakshuka. A shower of freshly chopped herbs gives the dish a homespun vibe. “It’s home food, but this is home,” argues Nafaa.
Fresh Moroccan Grilled Sardines
Moroccan nationals grew up on this bright, fresh dish, but had nowhere to find it prepared the way they remembered until Alhambra’s debut. Here, four grill-kissed sardines, their backs curved with the heat are squiggled with Sriracha, then presented over salad and served with a lemon segment to sharpen their olive-oil-based dressing. A shower of fried noodles add even more crunch.
The bitterness of olives and preserved lemon defines this chicken stew, but that should be an attraction, not a deterrent. Two crispy whole chicken legs sit in a shallow pool of braising liquid in this tagine that’s as bright as a day spent exploring Chefchaouen. It’s topped with French fries, so diners should be sure to remove the lid of the tagine before their crispness steams away.