Nolita will soon be home to a popular Egyptian fast-casual restaurant serving street food — making it one of the few Manhattan restaurants dedicated to staples from the country. Zooba, which launched in Cairo and now has six locations, will be opening this summer at 100 Kenmare St., near Cleveland Place.
Egyptian-American founder Chris Khalifa, along with head chef and co-founder Moustafa El Refaey, opened Zooba in 2012, offering classics, as well as twists, on Egyptian street food. The menu centers on dishes like ta’ameya, the local variant of falafel made with fava beans instead of chickpeas, resulting in a fluffier texture. Besides a classic flavor, Zooba offers a spicy pepper ta’ameya, an eggplant ta’ameya, and a pickled lemon ta’ameya.
Other dishes include koshari, a hearty bowl of lentils, chickpeas, macaroni, rice, and crispy fried onions doused with garlic vinegar and spiced tomato sauce; and ful, mashed fava beans with oil, cumin, onion, and lemon juice. Baladi, the Egyptian bread that looks similar to pita, is also on the menu. Meals will cost about $10 to $12 per person.
The restaurateur moved to New York a little over a year ago for the local launch and raised $4 million for the opening. It’s the first U.S. location for the chain, but the company has ambitions to scale across the country.
“When the street food craze kicked off, people were doing such interesting things with their respective food culture,” Khalifa tells Eater. “But no one was doing that with Egyptian food. There was a very clear gap.”
New York has had a boom in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean fast-casual restaurants, with places like falafel hit Taïm, Israeli pita spot Miznon, NYC street food icon Mamoun’s, and DC-based Cava all rapidly expanding here.
But while some of the dishes at Zooba may be familiar to people accustomed to Middle Eastern cuisine, the pillars of the menu are rooted specifically in traditional Egyptian food, which isn’t as ubiquitous in Manhattan. Most New York Egyptian restaurants are in Astoria and Bay Ridge.
The goal at Zooba is to popularize the cuisine around the world — without “Westernizing” it, Khalifa says.
“We’re ready to explain what ta’ameya is versus falafel, and we’ll call it ta’ameya even though everyone is used to being told its falafel,” he says, “even if that makes it a little bit harder [for us].”
Dene Mullen is a freelance journalist based in Cairo covering current affairs, culture, travel, and food in the Middle East-North Africa region.