Harissa is a dried chili paste originating in Tunisia but used throughout North Africa as a table condiment and a flavor component in stews and salads and rubbed on meats and vegetables. As with most recipes of this type, variations exist among cooks and countries, but it’s usually garlicky and fiery, bound with olive oil and often laced with the spices typical of North African cooking–cumin, coriander, caraway, fennel, dried mint. Harissa, in other words, is not to be messed with, but, for those with a taste for the piquant and bold, it can be irresistible.

El Harissa, an eclectic market and cafe in the strip mall on Maple Rd. near Miller, takes its name from this North African staple. Owned by Khaled Houamed, a Tunisian native, and his wife, Susan Thomas, the corner storefront features a deli case filled with Tunisian and Mediterranean dishes to eat in or take out; a small selection of fresh seasonal produce; a few North African groceries, crafts, and cooking utensils; and exotically flavored gelatos and sorbets from Palazzolo’s inFennville. As summer waned towards autumn and work began piling up, I stopped at El Harissa a few times for quick, take-home dinners.

Unloading two or three full bags after my first visit, I spread out a wide-ranging assortment of dips, entrees, and sides on our kitchen counter. After the superlative hummus I had last month at Damas, El Harissa’s version was almost shockingly bland. And with barely a hint of heat, much less of spice, the signature harissa dip–a blend of sauteed bell peppers and house-made harissa–was disappointingly flat. Mama houria, a pureed carrot dip with cumin, lemon, and olive oil, was quite garlicky but also bland beneath that initial blast of allium; I added salt, lemon, and cumin to help it along. More flavorful was zaalouk, a smoky roasted eggplant spread, reddish from a bit of tomato.

Though given different names, that evening’s entrees were essentially variations on an egg and potato casserole. Bacalao Fish Pie mixed vegetables, including a preponderance of spuds, with fresh and salted cod, cheese, and an insufficient hint of curry in custard-bound squares. The Tunisian egg tagine resembled a giant spinach and purple potato frittata, laden with melted cheese. Finally, Berber Terrine du Poulet blended ground chicken, shredded potato, egg, and scallions in individual loaves garnished with a curried coconut sauce. All of these dishes were substantial and filling, but none made us clamor for more.

However, El Harissa’s innovative take on tabbouleh, with red quinoa replacing bulgur and spiked with pickled onions and fresh herbs, was fresh, healthy, and delicious. Treated to a squeeze of lemon, mushrooms dusted with chickpea flour and baked were unusual and tasty. A squirt of citrus and a drizzle of Tunisian extra-virgin olive oil also helped brighten lablabi, cumin-scented stewed chickpeas.

Neither my husband nor I found that first dinner completely satisfying, and our expectations for another meal were not, quite frankly, very high. But two or three weeks later, a second supper, shared with a friend, was more generously flavored and spiced, as if a new chef had come in the intervening time. Houamed was mystified to learn that, saying that no such change occurred, so perhaps my second picks were better ones–or better matches, at least, for our taste buds.

As I heated up the entrees, we snacked on tzatziki, a Greek cucumber-yogurt salad or dip, this version loaded with garlic, dill, and tiny cubes of the vegetable. Paired with pillowy hand-shaped pita baked that day in Dearborn, it was zesty and delicious. Alone, vegetarian rice-stuffed grape leaves proved bland but perked up enormously garnished with that yogurt dip. Tunisian salad–diced tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and pickled onions dressed with harissa, lemon juice, and olive oil–was beautifully colorful, wonderfully fresh, and mildly spicy.

Carthage salad included a new ingredient for our repertoire–fresh dates, halved and pitted, butter-yellow in color, lightly crunchy in texture, and nutty and fruity in flavor. Nestled in a mix of tender greens alongside spiced roasted chickpeas, tomatoes, and figs and dressed with a fig-and-pomegranate vinaigrette, the fresh dates–another seasonal treat–were part of a delightful salad.

Incredibly, chicken couscous–a boneless breast, already sliced and topped with a dried fruit-and-nut relish on a bed of the grain–remained decently moist and tasty after I reheated it in the oven. Merguez meatballs–a lamb-and-beef combo in tomato sauce–were light and redolent of the spice rack. Served with roasted fingerling potatoes, a big, meaty goat shank, braised with Berber spices and finished with a balsamic vinegar reduction, was succulent and tender–easily the hit of the evening. We also tried the saffron-scented jeweled rice–gilded with dried fruit, nuts, and rosewater–and the always comforting mujadara, rice and lentils heaped with caramelized onions.

A treat from beginning to end, that second meal so encouraged me that I returned to El Harissa a third time to try again the hummus and harissa dip. Interestingly, although neither spread would ever be my favorite version of the many possible renditions, this time both exhibited more salt, more flavor, and, in the case of the harissa, more piquancy and complexity. Houamed says their menu remains a work in progress, so I’m hoping this more spirited reflection of Tunisian–and North African–food continues.

El Harissa Market Cafe

1516 N. Maple Road



Daily 11 a.m.-8 p.m.

Dips, salads, and sides $8.49/lb., entrees: $10.49/lb.

Wheelchair accessible