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Cafe Zitouna (formerly Cafe Ya Bon) - Tunisian in San Francisco - Report

I went to Cafe Zitouna last week with two friends and we had a great meal. This was my first visit in a long time - last time I was there it was still called Cafe Ya Bon and they did not yet have a full kitchen. Things look different now, and the overall vibe is a bit nicer. Plus, there are many more food options!

We started off sharing the b'stilla - filled w/ meat, scrambled eggs, almonds, and various other things - this was excellent. It was freshly made (took well over 20 minutes from time of ordering for it to arrive) and was topped with a fair amount of powdered sugar and cinnamon. It didn't seem like the actual filling was all *that* sweet, so people who prefer less-sweet b'stilla could easily ask for less (or no) powdered sugar. The b'stilla was large and round, plenty of food for three of us to share as an appetizer. For $7.95, a good deal.

As a main dish I had a special of white bean stew w/ merguez sausage. The sausage was served on the side on a small plate, while the beans came on a larger plate. It was good - comforting and flavorful, though not anything earth-shattering. The bread basket on the table had lots of bread which was good for dipping in the beans.

One friend had just a plate of sausage, which she ate w/ bread. The other friend had the salmon tajine, which I believe was also a special. This was also good - I only had a bite, so I don't remember all the details, but the salmon was properly cooked and tasted fresh, and the sauce was flavorful without being overpowering.

We also had a pot of mint tea which was excellent. The tea itself tasted like Argentinian mate, and the mint flavor was very fresh. It came already sweetened, which I liked, though it might have been too sweet for some.

The menu has several tajines, salads, sandwiches and appetizers, and the breakfast choices look good too. It seems like there are several items that are common to both Moroccan and Tunisian food, yet from what I have heard, the cooking definitely veers more toward Tunisian. I have eaten at Tajine (up the street) only once, but after one meal at each, I'd say that Zitouna is giving them a run for their money!

Dave MP

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Cafe Zitouna
1201 Sutter St, San Francisco, CA 94109

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  1. I worked in Tunisia for many years , I can not wait to try this resturant. Thanks for the report!

    1. Thanks for the report! My Tunisian SIL is looking forward to trying this place on his next trip to SF (He lives in LA, and gets homesick now and then...). I see they have Chakchouka Bil Merguez on the breakfast menu (which can be linked from Places): when I was in Tunisia that was my staple way to start the day! Its a bit of a walk but might be a good option for breakfast for folks staying downtown...will try and get down there for breakfast soon.

      6 Replies
      1. re: susancinsf

        I've been twice now under the newest incarnation (yes, I owe a report from the halal Easter chowdown), and like this spot very much. The owners are Tunisian and I find the flavors brighter and lighter than the Moroccan food I've had in this town. And the housemade harissa is very spicy and complex. The wife does most of the cooking and the line cooks finish off the dishes. I like the homemake-ish style and prices are quite low for what you get, so excellent value to be found here.

        The full menu is served all day, so you can have couscous at 6am if you like. But one dish is available in the morning only, lablaby, just because it's so popular for breakfast it sells out early. I've not had it yet, but maybe it's something that your SIL is longing for. A board lists daily specials, mostly tajines.

        Dave, did you try the Moroccan bread (wedges cut from small round loaves)? It had not been offered to me, only baguettes, in my two stops. The baguettes aren't great, but they're generous with them, and I use them as a vehicle for consuming as much as I can of the Tunisian olive oil offered in cruets on each table.

        I'm looking forward to trying the bastilla. They pull the pastry themselves for the bastilla, breek, and baklawa.

        1. re: Melanie Wong

          oh, you said the magic words, 'Tunisian Olive Oil'...just moved it higher on the list...! :-)

          I had to look up lablaby on line, apparently it is made with chickpeas, egg, spices...don't recall eating it in Tunisia but will pass along to tip to SIL, thanks!

          1. re: susancinsf

            The Tunisian EVOO is available for sale by the bottle there too!

          2. re: Melanie Wong

            We didn't try any of the Moroccan bread, but as you said, they were very generous with the baguettes - basically an unlimited amount.

            When I was there, I don't think the olive oil that was on each table was the Tunisian olive oil, since I saw the owner bring the Tunisian olive oil over to some other customers so they could dip their bread in it - he instructed them to try the Tunisian oil instead of the oil on the table.

            I also agree with Melanie that high food quality and reasonable prices make this place a great value.

            Dave MP

            1. re: Dave MP

              Thanks, Dave. I'll have to check about the various olive oils next time I'm there.

              Here's my report,
              http://www.chowhound.com/topics/508465

            2. re: Melanie Wong

              Ate here the other night on a whim. I started with a side portion of the North African salad and ordered the bastilla for entree. The North African salad was delicious - chopped hearts of romaine with bits of tuna, boiled potato, tomatoes, and sliced hard boiled egg with a light vinaigrette. Perfect way to start out the meal. The owner informed me there would be a bit of a wait for the bastilla but I had a book to tide me over. While I read, the space started to fill with locals, walk-ins, and people coming out of the mosque around the corner and the whole restaurant came alive. My bastilla came out and I was floored by the size. The first bite was terrific. The pastry was thin and crispy and the combination of savory chicken and eggs with sweet almonds and dusted sugar and cinnamon was completely new to me and delicious. I looked around and saw others digging into tajines and looking equally satisfied with their meals. All in all, a great value and good spot for a hearty meal.

          3. Thanks. It's at the top of my list now.

            1. Thanks Dave MP for your report. Sounds GREAT. I can't wait to go!

              1. Just wanted to chime in about this really wonderful place...we tried the
                -mlaoui (whole wheat blinis) with zaalook (eggplant salad)
                -tagine jilbana (lamb w/green peas, olives, artichoke hearts)
                accompanied by homemade lemonade and mint tea.

                Everything was outrageously delicious...the tagine came with a nice lamb shank with marrow and the peas were really tender but not mushy. We sopped up every last drop of the delicious stew with the supplied baguettes. The blini was crispy and hot and the amount of eggplant salad inside a perfect proportion, subtle, not overwhelming the blini.

                The homemade lemonade was perfectly sweet but lemony and the mint tea packed with fresh mint.

                We dream of going back to try different dishes. The owner is very attentive and softspoken and clearly cares about your dining experience. My favorite part of the menu is where it says on the front: "Most Credit Cards Accepted - Cash is better". You gotta love it.

                GO. RIGHT. NOW. It's pretty darn yummy IMHO.

                6 Replies
                1. re: crispypork

                  I walked by Thursday night on my way home and noticed that it was closed. A sign says that some kitchen remodeling's going on. I don't remember the exact date it will reopen, around the end of the month. So, do GO, but call first.

                  The owner's persona is a big part of the experience here. Can't wait to see what the next iteration of this little cafe will offer. i've been wanting to try the mlaoui as blini with some smoked salmon. My mom and I had a coffee break here a few weeks ago and she really liked the baklawa.

                  1. re: Melanie Wong

                    They've reopened. They leafletted the neighborhood with menus advertising free delivery for a min. of $15. They changed their hours -- I updated on the Places link.

                    I didn't see the menu before, so am not sure if they changed it but everything mentioned in this thread still seems to be there.

                    1. re: Fig Newton

                      I went for lunch today - had never been. I don't understand why those of you who call yourselves my friends didn't tie me down and drag me here before this. :)

                      Granted, I had a chance to taste the magic harissa about 2 months ago and hoarded it like a squirrel.

                      But it was great to finally go and have a meal for myself. I had the lamb stew couscous and had to force myself to not try everything on the menu -- knowing it was only 7 blocks from home and I could go all the time.

                      At lunchtime on a Wednesday it was hopping -- I was happy to see that.

                      The lamb stew couscous was really good with a delicious broth that was full of flavor yet light. I cannot wait to go back.

                      1. re: Fig Newton

                        Thanks for updating us. The light touch in the cooking style here is quite special and perfect for summer even in the stew-y dishes. Were you served sliced baguettes or a wedge of Moroccan bread?

                        So, now it's not open early in the morning? Did the menu drop bagels? I'm wondering if the breakfast lablaby is still available, haven't had it yet.

                        1. re: Melanie Wong

                          The printed menu that I received at home (actually, that I stole from a car outside my house) has a breakfast portion to the menu. Though it wasn't on the menu I was given at the restaurant (maybe it's a separate menu).

                          I didn't received *either* type of bread -- I obviously need to ingratiate myself a bit. ;)

                          The breakfast menu here on my desk lists:

                          granola
                          mlaoui
                          tartines
                          breakfast falafel wrap
                          chakchouka bil merguez
                          kufta tajine
                          american breakfast
                          omelette or scramble
                          breakfast burrito
                          egg sandwich

                          I don't see any mention of bagels ... but he has so many random things written on chalkboards that I wouldn't rule it out completely.

                          I saw a couple sandwiches served that looked really great -- on a thin wheat bread I think.

                        2. re: Fig Newton

                          Did you know that the housemade harissa (hot chili sauce) is available for sale? Also the lamb merguez ($8.95/lb). I bought some of each yesterday and will try my hand at cooking Tunisian this weekend.

                  2. I went again for dinner tonight and had another great meal.

                    Shared the bastilla, lamb couscous and the kofta tajine. Baguette was served w/ harissa and olive oil (I don't think it's the Tunisian olive oil on the table though). We also had a pot of mint tea.

                    Like many of my favorite restaurants in San Francisco (others that come to mind are Larkin Express Deli and Cordon Bleu), the food is very homey - not perfect or elegant, but very very good.

                    The bastilla is really great - and very big. We would have been fine w/ just that and one main dish - but we managed to eat almost everything and still have room for dessert. This was very fortunate, since for me the dessert was the highlight of the meal.

                    We shared the Tunisian pudding, which was a geranium flavored pudding w/ ladyfingers, pistachios and pinenuts. This was extremely good - very floral, but not overpoweringly so, and the nuts and cookies added a nice crunch. A nice, cool finish to the hearty meal. Highly recommended.