Occupying a well-windowed corner on Bay Ridge’s Fifth Avenue, Man’ouChe doesn’t look like much: The interior is clad in fake red brick and scattered with a few tables, and there’s little in the way of adornment besides a TV showing Egyptian screwball comedies from the ’40s and ’50s. Yet this small café with no waiter service offers the city’s most intimate look at today’s Lebanese vernacular cuisine, and you can find all sorts of culinary oddities you’ve probably never seen before. The place is a particular delight for vegans.
It is said that the original New Orleans po’ boy was simply a baguette piled high with French fries—poverty food, par excellence. Well, good ideas recur throughout culinary history, and that ur-hero is splendidly though perhaps inadvertently evoked with Man’ouChe’s “fries sandwich” ($3.50). An outsize pita wraps around a steaming serving of crisply cooked potatoes, wadded with lettuce and doused with a combination of tomato ketchup and a white sauce so redolent of raw garlic, it lights your lips on fire. That garlic sauce—ask for it with every dish if you don’t get it—is a species of aioli, a vestige of the French influence around the Mediterranean rim.
Another vegan delight is foul mdamas ($5), an Egyptian street specialty of stewed fava beans. Here, the legumes are laved in a luxurious quantity of olive oil, with a few chick peas thrown into the fabaceous morass for variety. The dish is delivered in a handsome bowl that looks ceramic, but is really plastic. (I had to thump it with my finger to make sure.) Contrary to the practice in most Middle Eastern cafés, the grape leaves ($7 per dozen) are freshly hand-rolled—rather than shaken from a can—and stuffed with a mellow mixture of rice and herbs. Before getting off the vegan binge, let’s also tout the fried cauliflower. Cut into florets, it browns nicely on the surface. If you’re bored of this porcelain vegetable that often smells faintly of sulfur, frying it will rekindle your enthusiasm.
The focus of the menu is not the meze (small appetizing dishes), nor the usual meat kebabs—which are halal, even though a cross hangs on the wall, proving that Brooklyn’s Lebanese community is a paragon of Christian-Muslim amity. With the exception of the onion-laced kafta kebab ($4.50 sandwich, $9 platter) and the slender sausage dubbed makanek, the meat and poultry tend to be dry. This problem is common in Middle Eastern eateries, as operators buy lean meat in response to consumers who prefer low fat. Man’ouChe’s lamb kebabs, though flavorful, are as fatless and fibrous as hay, while the chicken shwarma is edible only if you spoon on plenty of the aforementioned garlic sauce.
Instead, go for the café’s true specialty, manakeesh. These freshly baked flatbreads are the Levantine equivalent of pizzas, and something similar may have actually inspired Neapolitan pies long ago—though the influence has obviously gone both ways at this point. The most old-fashioned is zaatar ($1.50), a supple frisbee topped with sesame seeds, the tart dried berry called sumac, and zaatar—a desert herb that may remind you of oregano, or maybe not. Either way, Man’ouChe’s version, delivered hot out of the oven, will engulf your table in a cloud of pungent and agreeable odors. For an extra 50 cents, the baker will turn it into a sandwich by twirling the zaatar manakeesh around a filling of tomatoes, olives, and fresh mint. Superb!
While so-called pitzas (pita pizzas) have been a staple of Brooklyn dining ever since they were introduced to the borough by the original Moustache in Boerum Hill roughly two decades ago, Man’ouChe’s never strays into Italian territory. The only selection that looks vaguely Neapolitan is harra, paved with a crushed red something that turns out to be a combination of spicy red peppers and tomatoes, tasting more Albanian than Italian. But the best manakeesh is something you probably wouldn’t order given its pedestrian description: beid w lahme (ground beef with eggs). When it arrives, the appearance is as intriguing as the texture and taste—a rubbery sea of bright yellow and white dotted with a thousand tiny burger brown atolls, hemmed in with a sand-colored bread shoreline.
If you pretend it’s a species of hamburger, this flatbread is even more impressive, because, at $3.50, it’s easily enough for two to share as a main course. Add a serving of babaganoush ($4), and a house salad ($3.50)—both of which are voluminous—and you have one of the best cheap meals in town.