In Los Angeles, couscous makes it onto many menus as a side item or salad ingredient, but at Palikao, it’s decidedly the main dish. And you get to decide which freshly prepared fixings will accessorize your couscous meal.
“Usually couscous entrees are associated more with fine dining,” said Palikao owner Lionel Pigeard. So he took on the build-your-own-bowl concept to bring his specialty dish to lunch crowds, eaters on the go, and fast-casual variety seekers.
At the counter, a cafeteria-style steam table of ingredients awaits assembly, while the chalkboard menu instructs you to choose the proteins and vegetables to add to your bowl. Medium-sized bowls are $10 and large sizes are $13.
On the corner of Sixth St. and S. Los Angeles St., Palikao is situated in a downtown area sprouting with trendy bars and restaurants. The small front patio is decked out with green turf and plants, a welcoming makeover that attracts customers from the sidewalk as a novel escape from the concrete sprawl. Inside, a pink neon sign greets you with the words “miam miam,” which translates to “yum yum” in French.
“I want to invite people to wonder and to ask. I wanted to create a curiosity,” Lionel said.
Couscous is a dish made of steamed bits of coarsely crushed durum wheat, which for centuries has been a staple in North Africa and is also a popular comfort food in Lionel’s native France. Much of Lionel’s influence comes from his maternal grandmother, inspiring him to name the restaurant after her home village in Algeria. According to Lionel, it’s a region where nearly every family has their own recipe for couscous.
Lionel’s intention was not to import an ancient cuisine to LA but to concoct something new that appeals to diet-conscious Californians.
“The way I’m doing my couscous, I really want to focus on the healthy aspects,” he said.
Step one was to create a robust vegetable-based broth that both meat eaters and vegetarians could enjoy. The broth is poured over the dish last, injecting flavor into the couscous with a lively richness that you can smell wafting in the air when you step into Palikao.
“The broth is like the magic thing. It’s probably the most important ingredient of the couscous,” Lionel said. “It makes the link between everything.”
Next is the couscous itself, for which Lionel reserves a seriousness that he compares to a sushi chef preparing rice or an Italian chef with risotto. He spends an hour steaming and fluffing the butter-colored granules. And like a pampering at the spa, the couscous enjoys a steam bath throughout the day to keep it hydrated. Lionel routinely stirs the mass of miniature beads to prevent clumping. Notably, he also offers a gluten-free grain option such as quinoa to anchor your dish.
With the vegetables, Lionel takes the difficult route. Rather than doing it the traditional way—stewing them all together—he cooks them individually. Among the eight vegetable choices of the day, some are fried or roasted, others are sauteed.
“I really wanted to insist on the authentic taste of each vegetable,” he explained.
The chicken is cooked in a tagine where it is lightly sweetened with dried fruits. Other meats include beef meatballs and lamb merguez, which he acquires from a local Algerian butcher. For vegetarians, spiced matzo balls add substance and zest.
To top off your bowl, fresh herbs, raisins, chickpeas and housemade onion jam are among several options. For a spicy finish, try a smear of harissa, an alarmingly hot paste that Lionel makes with Mexican chilis and spices from local vendor Spice Station. You can also buy 8 oz. jars of his green or red harissa to take home, along with other freshly made items like pickled vegetables, shakshuka, and hoummous.
Having previously owned and operated two restaurants in Paris, Lionel is no stranger to the food business. He came to Los Angeles last year to pursue his dreams of launching a new food concept and building a new life with his family in California. With his focus now on Palikao, he’s able to practice his passion for cooking while honoring his inherited culinary heritage.
“I’m not a French chef, but I can do Mediterranean cuisine,” he said. “And the couscous, I can do like no one else.”