A smiling man in a red chef’s jacket and backward plaid ascot cap greets every customer strolling into Astoria’s Merzouka Café. If it’s slow, he’ll meet customers at the counter, jot down the orders, and shuffle off to the stove. If it’s busy, he’ll gesture for people to shout their orders, nodding vigorously in confirmation while flipping eggs or scooping home fries. Either way, in a matter of minutes he’s handing over the food and punching the total into an iPad on the counter.
Jamal Missaoui (or Jimmy, as his regulars call him), 59, is the chef, cashier, busser, food-runner and owner of Merzouka, a Moroccan-American café serving “All Day Moroccan Breakfast,” which he opened with his wife, Jamila, 16 months ago. The menu boasts an array of Moroccan dishes – soups packed with lentils and chickpeas, eggplants and tomatoes mashed into spreads, ground meat rolled with mint, cumin and paprika – and American breakfast staples, like omelets and egg sandwiches.
“People are different,” he shrugs. “If people like American, you give them an American meal.”
Moroccans account for just 10,000 of the roughly three million immigrants living in New York City, according to U.S. census data. Missaoui says a lot of Moroccans live in Queens – in fact, the Missaouis fell in love with the borough while visiting friends over 30 years ago.
“We were tourists, and I liked everything,” he says. The couple left Casablanca and settled in Astoria in 1989. They have two daughters – Sara, a physician’s assistant at Mt. Sinai Queens, and Dina, a student at Hunter College. Though Missaoui scoffs at the thought of homesickness, the whole family journeys to Morocco every three to four years to visit family.
In a foodie haven like Astoria – where Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Latin American and Asian restaurants abound – the bar for new eateries is high. While many New Yorkers come to Queens in search of culinary adventures, few come specifically for Moroccan food.
“I haven’t sought out Moroccan food before,” says Amelia Marosek, a first-time Merzouka customer and Astoria resident. “I think of this neighborhood mostly for Greek.”
Indeed, it took a while for Merzouka’s business to flourish.
“We were struggling for a year,” admits Missaoui, lamenting the challenges of sharing a block with a halal shop, a pizzeria, and a smoothie bar.
To ramp up their reputation, the Missaouis offer a 10 percent discount to the staff at Mt. Sinai Queens hospital, which is located just steps away on 30th Avenue. But for the most part, they rely on the food to speak for itself.
It seems to be doing the trick. A steady stream of people queue up for coffee and grab-and-go breakfast on weekday mornings, and many call in their orders or pop in for a quick bite during lunch. Weekends are even busier, when the growing mass of young professionals flocking to Queens for cheaper rent trade in their morning Manhattan commutes for a leisurely neighborhood meal.
“I see a lot with people on the weekends that I don’t see all week,” says Missaoui. “They’re young people, so they’re in Manhattan during the week.”
Marosek heard about Merzouka from a friend, who she says is a regular. After trying the shakshuka and honey-drizzled msemen, a soft flatbread, she’s hooked. “I want to have weekly working-lunches here,” she says. “It’s so cute.”
For Missaoui, the real sign of success is his ever-expanding army of loyal regulars.
“We’ve become like family – sometimes they don’t have to buy anything, they just come in to say hi,” he says. “They tell us about their lives, and we tell them our story.”
Nilsa Hidalgo is one of those regulars. She comes by at least two or three times a week for lunch or dessert.
“I’m getting fat, and it’s his fault,” she laughs, nodding to Missaoui. Hidalgo, a receptionist at Mt. Sinai Queens, was thrilled to have a new, reliable lunch spot on the block. “Before Merzouka, I’d go for pizza and be like, what do I get?” she says. “Here, I’ve tried almost all of the sandwiches.”
During his first few years in America, Missaoui worked in restaurants and then drove a hired car. After several decades behind the wheel, he grew sick of the traffic and decided to open Merzouka. He says cooking also helps him cope with his recently-diagnosed diabetes by keeping him on his feet all day, instead of being sedentary in a car.
The recent uptick in business brings another set of challenges for Missaoui. The café’s kitchen is small, fully visible from the 12-seat dining room, and runs on electricity rather than gas. Missaoui wants to switch to a bigger gas stove to keep up with the flood of orders, but his landlord won’t let him, fearing kitchen fires. Switching buildings isn’t possible, as he signed a “very expensive” five-year lease.
Until he can get a bigger stove, Missaoui is hesitant to list Merzouka on online delivery websites like Seamless and Uber Eats for fear that a flood of delivery orders might overwhelm Merzouka’s tiny kitchen and even tinier staff — of one.
“It’s only me,” he says. “Sometimes someone will come help me on the weekend.”
Jamila, who works as an X-ray and mammogram technician at Mt. Sinai Queens, frequently dashes over “when she gets a few hours” to help take payments and fill coffee orders. Most of the time, Missaoui works alone.
Yet Missaoui has no plans to slow down. He wants to expand the menu this summer, adding smoothies, juices, and more items cooked in a tagine, a cone-shaped clay or ceramic pot used to slow-cook stews and vegetable dishes in spices, oil and water.
While Missaoui says his American dishes are popular, it’s the Moroccan treats that draw in Astoria’s youngest food critics.
“A lot of kids know me,” he says, gesturing to counter laden with hand-rolled sfejn. “They come for the Moroccan doughnuts.” Unsweetened and leavened with yeast, Moroccan doughnuts are fluffier than the cake-like donuts Americans are often used to.
There is a handful of Moroccan restaurants in Astoria, most of them located on Steinway Street near Little Egypt. But Missaoui doesn’t think people need to venture beyond Merzouka to satisfy any craving – be it Moroccan, American, Mediterranean or Middle Eastern.
“Everything is mixed in here,” he says, smiling. “I cook everything you want.”