Travel tip: If you want to get to a restaurant before Anthony Bourdain does and tells everyone about it, you need to move fast. Always go places where there is no menu.
This one is definitely for the foodies. Tangier, the Restaurant Populaire. It’s down some seedy steps away from the main streets. You enter when they remove a large stick placed across the entrance, usually after 1pm. You take a seat in a room off the small kitchen. It’s really hot and the room is full of ceramics and stacks of herbs, chillies and bread. An old man enters with oil-skins and a motorbike helmet on. He’s carrying what has been brought in the fishing boats this morning and it’s what will be cooked for you. When they are ready, in no particular order, they will start to bring food to those seated. There is no menu or system.
First, they bring plates of fresh walnuts and almonds; black olives swimming in oil; bright-red oily pungent fresh harissa and the crusty Moroccan brown flat bread made with bran. They pour glasses of prune juice from large jugs of the brown thick liquid.
Then they bring in small bowls of fish soup, from a cauldron on embers in the corner of the room. The server stirs in something that looks like Amlo/أمْلُو (a paste of almond, honey and Argan oil) to the soup before he serves it. The bowls are brown ceramic and the spoons carved from raw wood. The soup is broth-like, maybe a hint of barley, with pieces of a fish incredibly fresh, sweet and soft with hints of grey. A family stands near to you waiting for a seat. An elderly man brings some Amlo on his finger to rub into the baby’s gums to stop her crying. A bubbling ceramic dish then comes – some soft white fish and something like baby squid. It’s simmering in a green herbaceous citrusy marinade. You eat from the same bowl with large hand-cut wooden forks using the bread to mop up the juice. It’s incredible.
Then there is a large platter- with something like swordfish, large meaty brown-grey fleshy chunks charcoaled on a skewer; and a whole fish, large and flat with a glutinous head. It’s rubbed in green herbs and oil with moist white flesh, easy to remove. Plates of whole ripe figs are then presented, purple and fleshy and ready to peel. With them, a bowl of crushed nuts drizzled in fresh honey. When you are finished,they whip away the splattered newsprint paper from your table, the elderly man presses your hand, and gives you some wooden cutlery in a basket to take away (all the ladies get this) and you are shuffled out as the family waiting, moves in to your spot. There are only about 20 seats at any time. When the food is gone, they simply place the large wooden stick back across the entrance to signal “it’s finished’. All done.