it appears Al Taib has a new hot sauce, and It Is Delicious. picture a large, ridged, semi-translucent plastic ketchup bottle (those like a tube, not those which taper toward the top) with the nozzle sawed off so as to allow an unobstructed flow – the sauce in the interior is clumpy and roughly chopped, with an almost masticated aspect, and appears to consist entirely of smashed chilis!
i was relieved upon tasting it that it wasn’t just a purée of the usual pickled red&yellow peppers that go on one’s zaatar (which would be not only redundant but vaguely duplicitous seeming), and pleasantly surprised at its credible heat and lack of overt vinegar taste. what really seized me however was the lurking presence of a taste that i couldn’t quite identify, sharp, caustic, but not unpleasant, and which i had been surprised not a day earlier by encountering as well in the hot sauce at a (new?) pakistani restaurant* on Jean-Talon. unable to associate it with any particular spice, i have come only so far as to note a distinct similitude to a jar of East Indian garlic pickle (pickled, curried garlic, wholly unlike western garlic-pickled cucumbers, believe me) which i acquired some time ago and have so far made only the most modest of headway in consuming, as it it positively overwhelming (in much the same way as tends to be pickled mango chutney, if you’re familiar) and honestly ruins just about half of what i put it on. albeit in such a manner as to make you feel bad for being not up to the task of consuming it, rather than owing to any deficiency on the pickle’s part, which when recognized as such is, i think, a fairly honourable defeat.
did i mention i have only encountered this at the Al Taib Express in the Peel Metro, and it wasn’t even there yesterday (i swear to god)? i’d assume it’s a restaurant staple now, but i can’t vouch for that, unfortunately. i did however ask the Guy Working There if he knew what was in it, and while he gave a much more engaged reply than the I Don’t Know I Just Work Here (In A Metro Station, No Less) i might just as well have expected, he didn’t seem to think there was anything more in it than small red chilis, oil and garlic, and a little bit of vinegar. he explained that it was a traditional Tunisian sauce called harissa, which understandably struck me because it really didn’t seem to have the earmarks i’ve come to associate with harissa (coriander, caraway, and a subtle smoky flavour). i said as much, rather, i mentioned that when i buy harissa paste it usually contains caraway and coriander, but he basically had no idea what i was talking about and speculated that he knows how it’s made “back there” (northern africa), gesturing vaguely over his shoulder to the upper right, but perhaps here they add other things, he doesn’t know.
the plot thickens. try this sauce. it’s not life/mind changing/bending, but it does give Al Taib’s zaatar a leg up in its fatal contest** against the Boustan vegetarian sandwich, by finally providing a hot sauce to challenge if not match the latter’s homemade (harissa-rich) hot sauce. it is even (should you care about hot sauce) well worth the trip to the Peel Al-Taib, should the other’s not have it, even though their zaatar is often older and their vegetable wiltier.
*i don’t remember the name of this place, and therefore can give no more specific directions than that it is across the street from Bombay Mahal (1001 Jean-Talon O.) and a little to the west, just on whatever corner that is. the food was delicious, leaving a fresher and less homogeneous impression than do many of (even the good) indian restaurants in that area. be forewarned though, their thali (at an acceptbale $5.99) is only available at lunch time, so our dinner of two curries, rice, naan and an app came to something like $30 after a generous tip. they do have hot sauce available for the asking, which was excellent, although their dishes were not particularly wanting in spice.
**more on this later, if you don’t know already, but for the moment, the zaatar has going for it that it’s only $2.25, is made on delicious tender flatbread, contains pickled turnip and mint leaves, and is a zaatar, whereas the boustanwich has delicious slaw and spiced onions, roast eggplant and some manner of zucchini fritter, and tahineh and chili paste, and overall is a little more filling, and Old Man Mr. Boustan is totally sweet and clearly takes a lot of pride in what he’s doing, and is both cognizant of and friendly to vegans, but the sandwich costs almost twice as much.
i intend in future to conduct an exhaustive (yeah right) poll on Zaatar v. Boustanwich, so stay somewhat tuned.