By Frank Sabatini Jr.
Ever since fusion cuisine came into vogue some 30 years ago, I’ve encountered ethnic pairings ranging from tastefully harmonious — like French-Vietnamese and Greek-Persian — to downright outrageous, such as the forgettable dishes made by a long-defunct Downtown restaurant that merged the cuisines of Italy and China.
Orange chicken Parmesan? No thanks.
I was admittedly a little skeptical when hearing about Medina Moroccan-Baja Kitchen, which sits adjacent to Barn Brewery on El Cajon Boulevard. The indoor-outdoor space last housed Cruiser Taco, a rudimentary prelude to new tenant Alia Jaziri, who ties together her Tunisian heritage with a love of Mexican food she acquired from growing up in San Diego.
Tacos are indeed still served here, but they aren’t your Southern California variety. They instead borrow from North African staples such as preserved lemon, tzatziki and house-made spicy lamb sausage, known as merguez.
Twists abound. In a mahi fish taco, for example, the customary white sauce is swapped out for pinkish aioli combining chipotle with equally spicy harrissa, a common Tunisian condiment infused with chilies, coriander and caraway seeds. And it works quite well.
The chicken “asado” taco, too, is anything but traditional. The myriad ingredients used for marinating the poultry — turmeric, cinnamon, green olives and preserved lemon — reveal you’re biting into something influenced by a faraway land. Yet in its folded construct, it still comes off as familiar food from Baja.
Jaziri was exposed to North African cooking by her father, who ran a Tunisian-French cafe in San Francisco years ago. She also spent summers in Tunisia, where she’d cook with her grandmother. Though as a native San Diegan and frequent Baja traveler, she reveled in Mexican food.
After attending law school and working in the tech industry, the idea of going commercial with her knowledge of the two cuisines called. Thus, she launched a food truck in San Francisco while living there for a while, and then after recently returning to San Diego, she opened the casual restaurant she long wanted.
Visiting with a vegetarian friend, we took a table just yards away from the open, front deck. The space inside is bright and soothing with aqua-colored walls and decorative tile-top tables.
My friend took particular delight in the “veg” bowl combining couscous with roasted sweet potatoes, black beans, toasted pepitos, tomato-cucumber pico de gallo, and roasted corn cut fresh from the cob. The flavors and textures blended seamlessly amid a light cloaking of Dijon-tarragon vinaigrette. That same dressing accented the house salad loaded with seasonal veggies.
The lamb sausage is a must. It appears as a protein option in either a taco, couscous bowl or the famous North African egg-veggie dish called shakshouka.
Shaped into thin links, I had the feisty well-spiced lamb tucked into the taco, which also contained arugula, pickled onions and queso fresco — all swaddled in grilled pita bread. If there was ever a single dish in which Mexico and Morocco meet, this is it. Every bite offered heat, crunch, softness and creaminess.
The main event for me, however, was the shakshouka presented in a cast iron skillet. It’s the only non-fusion dish on the menu, sticking traditionally to its North African roots with braised bell peppers and other veggies set in a light tomato sauce. In the middle is a partially sunk poached egg.
I ordered the dish with the aforementioned spiced chicken, which elevated the arrangement to that of a Moroccan tagine (clay pot) meal, but sans the couscous. Yet with the oozy egg involved, it tasted even better in comparison.
As Jaziri explained, shakshouka is a lunch or dinner entree that doubles as a breakfast item. Served with grilled pita, it makes for a complete, filling meal.
Given Medina’s small kitchen, the menu is concise with only a few other taco and bowl options available. There are also several sides, which include some very good truffle-garlic-Parmesan french fries cut addictively thin.
Beer and kombucha are on tap, although if you come knocking for more of a North African experience, we found that a pot of Moroccan-imported tea served with honey made for a soothingly exotic beginning and end to our visit.
— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of ‘Secret San Diego’ (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at email@example.com.