Thursday, May 02, 2013

The Chicago Dining World Tour: A Terrifically Tasty, Albeit a Bit Abbreviated, Exploration on the Irving Park Road to Morocco

4027 W. Irving Park Rd., Chicago
Note: Cash only and BYOB

What I ate: Merguez, Taktouka, Sweet Lamb Couscous, Pita Bread

Irving Park Road is the first exit after the Edens Expressway merges with the Kennedy.

To get to one event or another, I take Irving Park and head east on it likely a dozen or more times each year.

Shokran, a Moroccan restaurant I discovered online, is the first storefront east of the Irving Park exit, on the south side of the street. I've never noticed it, and was I not seeking it out as part of my Chicago Dining World Tour, I'm guessing I never would have.

So I'm happy that my local global dining initiative helped me to quite literally discover a restaurant that for the most part provided a tremendous experience for me and my friend Ken.

We got to Shokran shortly after 5:00pm--me straight from seeing the musical Barnum--and were the first patrons at the small (10 tables) but attractively appointed restaurant. We did not have a reservation, nor did it seem like we needed one.

A pleasant waiter greeted us, seated us and provided some appreciated menu guidance.

We started with a pair of $5 appetizers; one hot: Merguez = homemade beef and lamb sausage and one cold: Taktouka = roasted green peppers and tomatoes flavored with virgin olive oil and special Moroccan spices.

The Taktouka arrived first, almost in conjunction with a complimentary basket of pita bread, a dish of olives and some hot sauce (which really wasn't all that spicy). The green pepper & tomato concoction worked wonderfully with the fresh pita, and though I'm not typically a fan of olives, I also enjoyed loading up other pieces of pita bread with them and the hot sauce.

The Merguez looked like breakfast sausages and were accompanied by Dijon mustard. They were good but not nearly as captivating as the Taktouka.

Ken has now accompanied me on several Dining Tour excursions--Greek, Ukrainian, Peruvian, Polish, Italian--and especially in understanding my exploratory and expository aims, he usually orders something different so that I can have a second entree to photograph, reference and often share.

But at Shokran, we both locked in on--and ordered--the same entree: Sweet Lamb Couscous.

Per the menu, couscous is made from small grains of semolina, coated with finely ground wheat flour. Couscous dishes at Shokran include Lamb, Sweet Lamb, Chicken, Sweet Chicken, Merguez, Vegetarian and Royal, a combination of lamb, chicken and merguez.

The Sweet Lamb selection is described as braised lamb shank over a bed of couscous with carmelized onions, raisins and roasted almonds.

It was every bit as good as it sounds, and Ken and I devoured everything on our plates except the bone.

Over the course of my gastro-ethnic undertaking this year, I have enjoyed many scintillating and distinctive meals, and the Sweet Lamb Couscous at Shokran ranks up there with any of them.

So certainly, I recommend trying the Moroccan restaurant, on a weeknight or, as we learned, with a reservation on Friday or Saturday. And be aware that it is BYOB and, like I similarly discovered at the Costa Rican Irazu, cash only (with an ATM inside).

For although our meal up to this point was ideal, things became a little less than perfect.

It was around 6:20 and we were done with our entrees. Ken usually likes coffee and we would've considered dessert had we been offered any (I still have no idea what Shokran has for dessert, if anything).

I realize the waiter didn't know this, but my parking meter across Irving Park was expiring at 6:45, so it's not as if we were planning to stay all night. But with 4 or 5 of the 10 tables still empty, without offering us coffee or dessert, he said that we'd have to leave as there were people with reservations coming in.

So after making a point of finding and trying Shokran, being the first patrons to arrive, getting 2 appetizers, 2 entrees and 2 Diet Cokes, we were essentially given the heave ho.

And then reminded of the sign on the door that says "Cash Only."

Fortunately, we didn't have to reach out to Rick Blaine to get us out of this Moroccan jam, as we cobbled together enough cash to pay the bill without incurring likely lofty ATM fees.

After paying the check, and deciding to go to Julius Meinl for coffee and dessert, with no other patrons having come in and several tables sitting empty, the waiter then told us that they'd had a cancellation and we were welcome to stay.

We didn't.

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