The Foreign Ingestor: Chez Manelle
The Spot: Chez Manelle, 2313 Wilson Boulevard, Arlington, VA, (703) 522-2140
The Cuisine: Tunisian, Middle Eastern
The Go-To Dishes: Hummus with beef shawarma, Couscous Manelle, Tunisian-style rice with chicken and vegetables
The Scoop: Members of the Arlington working class rejoice! Amid the sea of Five Guys and Subway outlets around the Courthouse Metro is Chez Manelle, which according to its website is the first Tunisian restaurant in the United States. That's a pretty bold statement, and I could find nothing to disprove it via the standard web searches. Whether unique or not in the U.S., though, this cozy spot on Wilson Boulevard serves up authentic Tunisian dishes as well as various Middle Eastern favorites, all at pretty reasonable prices.
I walked in to find a fairly empty restaurant with Arabic programming on the TV, a hookah setup by the windows, and oddly placed pink wraparound neon. The menu is exciting but also confusing, with just too many options, all of which sound remarkably good. My father always taught me to order a restaurant's specials, since there's a reason they're specials. On the day I visited, Chez Manelle's daily special was Tunisian-style rice with chicken and vegetables. I ordered the dish with an appetizer of hummus and beef shawarma.
The steaming shawarma on hummus arrived with dabs of olive oil on top. The meat lacked spice and was incredibly lean, but the hummus was distinctive — not necessarily lemony or garlicky or earthy, but almost sweet. The appetizer came with a side of steaming mlawi bread for dipping purposes. Showcasing the influence of French cuisine in Tunisia, this bread is a delicious hybrid of pita and croissant, made out of phyllo dough and cut into squares.
As with a lot of Tunisian dishes, the chicken with rice and vegetables was lightly flavored with harissa, a type of saucy seasoning made with red chili, garlic, salt, cumin, coriander, and olive oil. Despite its wealth of aromatics, the dish was neither too spicy nor salty, but perfectly balanced. Although filling, everything tasted fresh and light.
The Verdict: With just about every entree under $10, Chez Manelle is a fantastic alternative to the fast food chains near the Courthouse Metro station.