You can’t walk down three streets in Manhattan without being confronted by fluorescent storefronts serving tzatziki bowls, soggy burritos, and sandwiches somehow filled with tonkotsu ramen. In most cases, these fast-casual places are both convenient during your lunch break and soul-sucking. And if we’re lucky, twenty years from now, they will have gone extinct. Like pagers, tall UGG boots, and printed Mapquest directions. But Zooba will be the sole survivor of the great fast-casual extinction. It’s the only fast-casual restaurant in New York you should give a sh*t about.
This Egyptian spot in Nolita has several other locations in Cairo. It is, by definition, a fast-casual chain. But unlike most of its fellow species, Zooba serves sandwiches, salads, and dips that are so excellent, you won’t be able to stop saying the restaurant’s name out loud, like a percussive a cappella warm-up, or some sort of pagan chant.
Zooba’s Egyptian street food will be the first thing you think about at the end of your workout, before your lunch break, and at midnight when you’re drunk and want to confess your love to a sandwich that doesn’t know you exist. The specialty here is taameya (fried balls made out of fava beans). They’re crunchy and excellent, and come by themselves with sauce, on a salad, or in soft baladi bread. Our favorite thing, though, is the cheese hawawshi. It’s a grilled pocket involving a spiced beef patty, onions, tomatoes, and roumy cheese that melts into the hot baladi bread like it has dependency issues. This is a stoner’s dream, a cow’s nightmare, and the most straightforwardly delicious thing here.
Even rarer for a fast-casual spot, you’ll want to have a sit-down meal at Zooba. There’s a ton to look at while you’re here. Starting with the canopy of LED lights that covers the open kitchen in the center of the restaurant, and a bunch of colorful posters that look like the marketing campaign for a VR music festival. Even the required CPR instructions are bright green and depict an alligator in place of a choking person.
Zooba checks all the boxes for a typical fast-casual restaurant. It’s quick, it’s open during your lunch break and whenever you get out of work, you can order things in bowl or wrap-form, and nothing on the menu costs more than $15. But unlike every other restaurant in the category, you’ll give a sh*t about Zooba. So next time someone suggests another overdressed kale caesar, just start a Zooba chant. They’ll join in sooner or later.
There’s not a ton of taameya, the Egyptian version of falafel, in NYC. We’re not sure why, since these fava bean balls are worth stockpiling in your purse, saving from a fire, or using FSA money on (say it’s for your health). The taameya here are oval-shaped and bright green inside, and the classic sandwich is a great way to get a sense of their unadulterated power.
Between the crispy taameya, pickled cauliflower, and spicy harissa raisin sauce, the textures of this sandwich work together like a family on a whitewater rafting trip.
If there were martinis at Zooba, this is what we’d pair one with. It’s filling, cheesy, salty, and you can really taste the spice on the beef patty.
You can think of this as the 200-level hawawshi class. It’s a cheese hawawshi but with Zooba’s spicy citrus and carrot sauce. Try the cheese one first, and then graduate to this. It’s better overall.
Our favorite dip at Zooba. It’s sour, delicate, and creamy all at once. To quote a friend who hates kalamata olives but loves this dip, “I hate kalamata olives but I love this dip.” He nailed it.
Ask yourself a simple question: do you love liver? No really. Are you in love with liver? If so, please proceed and order this. It’s delicious and extremely iron-y, but certainly not for everyone.
If you want a light lunch or dinner without any bread, we fully endorse this over the Sweetgreen salad next door that you’ve had 800 times. It comes with three taameya, arugula, some pickled vegetables, and beet hibiscus tahina dressing.
Like sleeping in or helping your friend move, Zooba’s koshari is only available on Saturdays or Sundays. It’s a bowl of warm lentils, chickpeas, rice, and gluten-free spaghetti with a tomato-y cumin sauce and fried onion on top. This koshari is the kind of comfort dish that someone spent all day cooking in one big pot, and little old you gets to eat it on your couch.