For Hassan Ziadi, the American Dream is still alive.
“When I arrived here in 2013, I had about five hundred dollars,” Ziadi tells me from his new restaurant in Minneapolis’ Midtown Global Market.
“But as long as you are working, you are doing okay,” he says with steadfast assuredness. “I had three jobs, I worked 80 hours a week, I forgot about all my experience, did what my bosses told me to do, and made sure they were happy with me. And now, they are my regular customers.”
And that is how you realize the dream of owning your own restaurant. Well, that and 25 years’ worth of traveling the world, working in five-star hotels all over Europe including the Ritz Carlton Marrakesh, along the way picking up four or five languages, winning a lot of awards, and never bending on that 80-hours-a-week work ethic.
So if the American dream means doing all of those things and being rewarded, then that dream is alive. And it lives in this corner of the Midtown Global Market.
Ziadi’s love affair with the United States started at — where else? — Disney World. His dad, a Moroccan politician with the means to travel, took him there on vacation when he was 15.
“I said, I will have to live my life here.” He returned to Disney World. “I still have the pictures from these visits. You know, with the Mickey Mouse?” It all made an unshakeable impression on the young Ziadi.
“It is the country of opportunity. What happened to me, you cannot do it anywhere else,” he says.
Then there was the fact that, despite a promise to his dad that he’d always do well in school, Ziadi was not in fact doing well in school.
“My dad said, ‘Since you are not doing well in school, you have to choose a trade. You can be a mechanic, you can fix air conditioners!’”
But Ziadi thought about Mickey Mouse and Disney World, and Club Med and the luxurious hotels he’d been able to visit throughout his childhood. “I thought about hospitality, and how they get to work in luxury places and they get paid for it!”
That is how Ziadi became one of the most hospitable restaurateurs around. His straight-backed figure in a crisp white chef’s coat is always close at hand, ready to serve. Visit his place and you’re no longer in a casual, bustling market, but with a little imagination, you’re in a five-star hotel. Close your eyes when you bite and it’s even easier to imagine.
When Ziadi first presented his idea of a Moroccan restaurant to the powers that be at Midtown Global Market, they thought they didn’t need him.
“They thought I was going to serve gyro like the Middle Eastern restaurants they already had, but I said, ‘No! Moroccan food is totally different. It’s got influences from France, Spain, Israel, and contributions from everybody!’”
He was right. He did have something special. When was the last time you ate out of an ornate ceramic tagine at the market?
A tagine is a traditional North African dish that takes its name from the vessel it’s cooked in. Conical in shape, the ceramic dish has a hole at the top that allows steam to escape, but also to collect and drip back down into the dish, keeping food tender and moist.
Ziadi says these are the same dishes everybody — from casual diners to wedding-goers — feasts on in North Africa. The food is simple: braised meats, couscous, and lots and lots of vegetables. (Moroccan Flavors is a vegan and vegetarian dream, so take note, non-meat lovers.) But this straightforward cuisine becomes intoxicating with the ingenious application of rosewater, cinnamon, spiced olives, nut compotes, and preserved lemon.
Ziadi’s wisely kept the menu simple and fresh so he won’t have to make a lot of changes, aside from the occasional delectable special, like a recent kofta meatball tagine. The kingly portion of delicate beef meatballs was cloaked in fiery tomato sauce perfumed with peppers and dry spice. A blanket of soft-cooked eggs made it the sort of meal that could see a runner through a marathon.
Approach the counter and a salad bar of vegan items awaits, each one more lovely, colorful, and fragrant than the one before. Find smoky eggplant, medallions of orange in rosewater, chile-infused cauliflower, spiced olives so captivating they’re as good as currency. You can choose one for $4.75, or get a dollop of each for $8.95. Do yourself a favor and get the latter. The rainbow palette is perfect next to a tagine, where a fluffy bed of couscous, chickpeas, squash, and cabbage soaks up the juices of delicately braised beef or chicken. Taken together, they turn a bite into a chorus.
Thanks to Moroccan cuisine’s French influence, the variety of braised meats can also be bedded down on a fresh baguette. The beauty of this sandwich is clinched with a lightly spiced aioli and a side of those olives. Take it from us and pour them right on top. This rivals Manny’s Tortas for the best meal between bread at the market.
The only way to have this cooking is with a mint tea, hot or iced, a social imperative in Ziadi’s region of the world. It would be discourteous not to serve it, or to refuse it. At Moroccan Flavors, it flows like water and Ziadi never forgets to offer.
But Ziadi’s world is now of course the Midtown Global Market, in Minneapolis, the place he has chosen over all others.
“The people are welcoming and friendly here,” he says.
Go, and accept his courtesy, and show him how much we have in return.
Midtown Global Market
920 E. Lake St., Minneapolis
More from Food & Drink