photo credit: Teddy Wolff
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. If we’re lucky, twenty years from now, they will have gone extinct— like pagers, tall UGG boots, and printed MapQuest directions. Zooba will be the sole survivor of the great fast-casual extinction. It’s one of the few fast-casual restaurants 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. Unlike the other members of its species, Zooba serves sandwiches, salads, and dips that are so balanced you won’t be able to stop saying the restaurant’s name out loud, like a percussive a cappella warm-up.
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 from fava beans. They’re crunchy and excellent, and they come by themselves with sauce, on a salad, or in a pocket of soft baladi bread. Our favorite thing, though, is the cheese hawawshi. Its spiced beef patty, onions, tomatoes, and roumy cheese melt together into the hot baladi bread like they all have dependency issues. This is a stoner’s dream, a cow’s nightmare, and the most 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, from the canopy of LED lights that covers the open kitchen to 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 $13. But unlike every other restaurant in the category, you’ll give a sh*t about Zooba. So the next time someone suggests another overdressed kale caesar, just start saying Zooba repeatedly. They’ll join in sooner or later.
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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, and 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.
Olive Labna Dip
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.
Do you love fava beans? No really. Are you in love with fava beans? If so, please proceed to order this. It’s slow-cooked for ten hours and topped with a little bit of tahina and tomato-onion relish.
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 hiring movers, Zooba’s koshari should not be underestimated as a worthy option. It’s a bowl of warm lentils, chickpeas, short-grain rice, and gluten-free tubetti with a tomato-based 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.