The offerings of the fast-casual sector of restaurants has long been limited to salads and better-burger concepts. An exception can be found in Zooba, one of the latest New York City entries into the category.
Located at 100 Kenmare St. on an attractive intersection in Nolita and steps away from Broome Street Residence Hall, the recently opened eatery serves Egyptian comfort food. This opening piqued the interest of those grateful for a refreshing iteration of fast-casual dining and those eager to sample a cuisine that is largely absent from Manhattan. Already a small chain in Cairo, this location is the brand’s first outpost in the United States. The restaurant even had to close its doors temporarily following its opening weekend because its kitchen couldn’t keep up with the volume of orders, proving its immense and persistent popularity.
Zooba was bustling on a recent early weekday evening. Ambiance is a priority at Zooba— foreign rap blares throughout the space, a source of uncapped energy. The menu boards on the wall next to the door are surrounded by posters advertising the restaurant in Arabic and English.
At the center of the restaurant is an open kitchen and painted counter where patrons order and sit. Above the kitchen space, the entire ceiling is adorned with abstract neon light displays which cast a multi-colored glow across the space, giving it something of a nightclub atmosphere without being too gimmicky.
The Classic Taameya ($7.50) is a sandwich that consists of a fried fava bean and herb mixture placed inside a pita-like bread called baladi. It is one of two entrees Zooba specializes in, the other being Hawashi, a beef patty in baladi. I also ordered a side of dukka fries ($4), steak fries seasoned with a signature Egyptian blend of nuts and spices including sesame, coriander and cumin. The prices were extremely favorable for a Manhattan restaurant, let alone one with such an elevated atmosphere.
The food arrived promptly and was strikingly packaged in paper that resembled a newspaper written in Arabic, emphasizing the street aesthetic. The taameya appeared similar to other Mediterranean cuisines but the baladi was much richer in taste than pita and maintained a savory flavor that was not overbearing. The fried fava beans added a crunch that paired well with the chewy texture of the baladi. The accompanying tahini added an earthy element to the dish, and was the use of spice was not sparing. The real standout in the meal was the dukka fries, whose flavor was reminiscent of cajun seasoning from the southern U.S.
Zooba is a worthy addition to both New York fast-casual and international dining. The amount of food and level of ambiance you get for less than $10 is truly remarkable in this city. Zooba’s food may be slightly outshadowed by its atmosphere and decor, but it is solid nonetheless. Its food may not join the ranks of legendary New York cheap eats but Zooba still deserves a spot as fast-casual staple for many years to come.
Email Chad Evans at [email protected]