Tunisia, a small country sandwiched between Algeria and Libya, had not been on most Americans’ minds until recently, when its “Jasmine Revolution” became the first of recent revolts in the Arab world. Accordingly, a number of commentators have referred to it as the “Arab Gdansk,” a nod to the city that heralded the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe.
But in DC, Tunisia can be on your mind not just because it is the epicenter of Arab politics, but because Arlington is home to Chez Manelle*, one of the only Tunisian restaurants in the country. The only others I could find are in Hollywood and New York City, so your chances to take a peek into this culture are quite limited!
Though Chez Manelle looks divey on the outside, the interior is clean, bright, and blue. When I visited, Al Jazeera and Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice” flickered simultaneously from separate televisions, demonstrating how the restaurant caters to both North Africans from around the area and those of us just seeking out a new place to dine.
So what the heck is Tunisian food? Think a strong Mediterranean base—olive oil, lamb, phyllo dough—plus fragrant Arab spices, Turkish styles, Berber heartiness, and a little Tunisian “je ne se quois.” Oh and I meant that in French—the dish “Spaghetti a la Tunisienne” should demonstrate who controlled this tiny North African province until 1956.
But for all of the influences, there is something delicious going on in Tunisian food that I can’t quite put my finger on. My favorite dish was the omek houria, a smashed carrot dip with olive oil and mysterious “Tunisian spices.” I also enjoyed the kaftaji, a stew of tomatoes, zucchini, and spices accompanied by French fries, and the brika, a Middle Eastern empanada (my words not theirs!) Another authentic plate is tajine, a quiche of sorts, not to be confused with Morocco’s tagine, a serving bowl with a lid. Be sure to top off your meal with mint and pine nut tea.
In addition to great food, Chez Manelle also has hookah and a lovely patio that will beckon on summer nights. Now is the time to visit this outpost, likely one of the few chances you’ll ever have to taste Tunisian in the USA!
To visit: 2313 Wilson Boulevard, Arlington VA. 703-522-2140. A five-minute walk from the Courthouse Metro station, or on various the Wilson/Clarendon Boulevards bus lines