One great, often-unacknowledged resource for Boston food writers is amateur review site chowhound.com, whose passionate habitués routinely unearth terrific new restaurants, as they did last year with Angela’s Café, a phenomenal Mexican place. Recently, Boston Chowhounds steered me to Oran Café, a two-month-old Moroccan restaurant in East Boston that has much in common with Angela’s: both are friendly, high-value, off the foodie track, and graced by the authentic cooking of their owners’ moms. With its cheap sign, bare brown-stucco walls, vinyl flooring, and fluorescent lights, the 26-seat Oran could be mistaken for a modest social club, even after you wander inside. But don’t be fooled: amazing food is prepared in this humble setting.
Co-owner Hanan Mezri shares cooking duties with her mother, Aicha, and also serves the dining room, greeting guests with a menu recitation (there are no printed menus). The daily changing selection includes three to five entrées built around halal chicken, lamb, beef, or fish, plus a choice of several vegetable side dishes. One night, a pan-sautéed quarter-chicken ($9.95) with fried cubed potatoes sported a vibrant sauce of garlic, lemon, turmeric, and olives, no drop of which survived our mopping pita and French bread. A side of Moroccan salad — chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, parsley, and cumin — was as refreshing as a Mediterranean breeze. On another night, lamb ($12.95) featured two big, meaty braised shanks served with a beautiful shower of caramelized onions and toasted pine nuts; a dotting of caramelized prunes added a fascinating sweetness. This came with garlicky chopped spinach flecked with more pignoli and crowned with olives and vinegar peppers.
A sublime couscous for two ($11.95) featured perfectly done, fine-grained couscous with chunks of beef brisket, butternut squash, zucchini, and carrots steamed to tenderness. With a word of caution on its ferocity, Hanan brought out some of her mother’s freshly made harissa, a bright-orange chili relish, which in tiny dribs added a habanero-like heat to individual bites of our entrées. Hanan’s husband, co-owner and dining-room backup Hacene, made us a fine pot of sugary green tea with mint ($3.50), served boiling-hot from a pretty silver pot. The amiable, enthusiastic Mezris also favored us with a dessert of beghrir, thin pancakes browned on one side and drizzled with butter and honey.
It takes a little effort to locate (hint: look for Kelley Square Pub across the street), but to the kind of adventurous diner whose appreciation of deliciousness doesn’t hinge on glamorous atmosphere, Oran might be 2008’s find of the year.
Oran Café, located at 170 Marion Street, in East Boston, is open daily, from 8 am to 9 pm. Call 617.567.1900.