There are few things as insistent as cravings for particular foods. Whether it’s as rarefied as the desire for a madelein pastry in Marcel Proust’s epic multivolume novel Remembrance of Things Past or as down home as a hankering for grandma’s chicken soup or dad’s barbecue, the hunger for particular foods at odd moments is often hard to resist. So when I yearn for falafel, one of my favorite delicacies, I have no choice but to head for Tangiers International, a tiny, informal place that trumpets having “specialty foods for all people.”
Tangiers is located in a small and mundane, mid-twentieth century shopping plaza on a busy street corner at the far eastern edge of West Hartford, Connecticut. Whenever I step through the door, I’m transported by the scent of exotic spices and the smell of food sizzling on the grill. Warm, savory balls of falafel are served in a soft wrap with lettuce, tomato and flavorful tahini sauce. The menu says it’s “unique one of a kind,” and the gracious young brothers serving their mother’s (the owner and cookbook author Nancy Samia Latif’s) home-made recipes will tell you it’s the best in the country, if not the world. It’s a boast I readily believe. Even my finicky teenage son has raved about the explosion of flavor in each bite.
Although it’s difficult to keep from ordering falafel every time, I’ve also enjoyed their hummus, gyros, lentil soup, chicken curry, tabouli salad, spinach pies, mujaddara, “heavenly” pastries, and other delights. Of course, anything I order is amped in flavor when washed down with a powerful demitasse of Turkish coffee.
Food is served at a short, seven stool, yellow Formica counter in the back while most of the store is given over to narrow aisles packed with groceries from distant lands that on any typical day can suddenly take you on a far away journey. Among other things there is orange blossom water from Lebanon, green broad beans from Turkey, pickled lemon from Egypt, spicy giant hot beans from Bulgaria, and McKay’s lemon curd from Scotland. There’s Poojiaji’s garlic paste from India, cocoa spread from Israel, Chinese teas, Moroccan couscous, coconut milk from Thailand, artichoke hearts from Spain, Swiss chocolate, Greek olives, hearts of palm from Brazil and Italian oils and vinegars. There are even some local products such as honey from Alba Flower Apiaries in Bristol, Connecticut.
If the dining counter is reminiscent of an old time drug store soda fountain, it’s no wonder. Going back a number of years, this space was occupied by the Concord Pharmacy, the kind of small corner apothecary that used to be found across America in the days before the big chains took over. The place has undergone relatively little change, and the pressed tin ceiling and tubular fluorescent lighting and linoleum tile floor are still intact. Where the groceries are now, there were once racks of magazines and newspapers and shelves of patent medicines, candies, and tobacco products.
Back in the day, it was a happening place and I’d stop in occasionally for cough drops or a greeting card. There was always lighthearted small talk among the customers and people behind the counter. I remember several times seeing the late Connecticut Chief State’s Attorney Jack Bailey (son of legendary Democratic National Committee Chairman and Kennedy ally, John M. Bailey) duck in for a box of cigars early in the morning while I drove past on my way to work in Hartford.
Sometimes I find the building’s transformation as remarkable as the food, reflecting as it does fluctuating populations, neighborhoods, fashions and tastes. Tangiers is a harbinger of changes bringing the globe to local corners. It’s about the expansion of our sense of place, the growth of a world culture in spots once Yankee or mainline Eurocentric. A one-time white-bread and run-of-the-mill drug store has been reborn as an outpost of internationalism.
Eating at Tangiers reminds me that even the most pedestrian buildings are not completely inanimate, but retain and express the energy of their occupants, their habits and uses. Not merely defined by design, construction techniques and materials, the best are adaptable and frequently enjoy several lives. It’s partly the life flowing through the architecture that induces me to return and hang out at Tangiers. And when the best falafel is served in a simple, homespun manner that almost makes you feel as if you stepped into a friend’s kitchen, the most ordinary place becomes extraordinary.