It has a very unassuming exterior. If you were in the area, you may stop at the Starbucks on the opposite side or the Raising Cane’s next to it. Perhaps you would just drive by the huge eyesore that is the Chase drive-through ATM next to it, and never notice its diamond-in-the-rough neighbor – “Casablanca Moroccan Cuisine”. But that is how hidden gems are – hidden in plain sight, humble and inconspicuous.
The first time I walked in, I wasn’t sure of what to expect. Outside the restaurant, a few men were sitting on metallic patio furniture having hookah and tea. A traditional samovar sat on their table, along with two glass teacups stuffed with fresh mint leaves to the brim. Walking past them I entered an elongated room with orange walls and modest decoration reminiscent of Persian and Moorish times. A tiny door chime rang my entrance and its sound was quickly replaced loud Arabic music playing on the LCD in the top left corner of this softly lit space. Towards the front, a small alcove displayed some dusty paraphernalia from distant lands unknown behind a wooden hostess stand. At the back, a small refrigerator stood displaying all kinds of soda.
Basic, comfortable and warm – I thought to myself as I took a seat. Two minutes later, the owner Khalid Boujaidi, walked out of the kitchen and greeted me asking what I would like to eat. I asked him to get me his best dish – and I have never looked back ever since.
Like his restaurant, Khalid is a simple man – modest and unpretentious. When you meet him the first time, he seems like a man of few words who lets his food do the talking for him. But become a regular (and for Khalid that is anyone who visits his restaurant more than three times), and you will have earned yourself a friend as well as a gifted chef.
Khalid’s chicken Tagine is now one of my favorite meals, the true definition of comfort, soul food – prepared fresh every day with rich, wholesome ingredients and painstaking attention. His menu is minimal and easy to navigate. To start up an appetite you can order some robust falafel or hummus. If you are in the mood for something light, there are salads and wraps. But for the real taste of his cooking, order one of the entrées with saffron rice and salad. Round off your meal with some special Moroccan tea.
A few weeks ago, I sat down with Khalid, rather, I stood in his kitchen as he prepared his masterpiece Tagine, to ask him how he decided to become a chef and ended up as the owner of this little Moroccan gem in the middle of San Antonio, Texas.
‘It’s not been easy. When I came here at first, it was very hard. For the first three months, I just wanted to go back. My wife would keep asking why we moved. I kept questioning my decision, I wondered how I would succeed, what I would do. I don’t like remembering those days too much. It wasn’t easy’. He shakes his head as his hands chop the vegetables almost automatically for the side salad that goes with the Tagine.
Khalid’s kitchen is systematic and functional. He has distinct corners (and stoves) for rice, meat, vegetables, and his tea. This ensures that his service always runs like a well-oiled engine. At any time you will find at least two kettles of his special Moroccan mint tea brewing in the kitchen. There is a large salad bar that doubles up as his chopping and assembling workspace as he lowers a granite slab over it. In one seemingly forgotten corner, there are two mini microwaves stacked atop each other, collecting dust. Khalid admits that they are almost never used since all his food is made fresh, to order.
The outfit opened its doors in 2013 and Khalid has been running the whole show on his own. The one-man front means that his patrons may need to wait a bit longer than usual on busy nights, but as fresh as his food comes out, it is always worth the wait. He takes immense pride in his process and it shows. Many restaurants of this size sometimes fail to run efficiently and get enough business, let alone maintain a stellar sanitation record. Moroccan Cuisine boasts a 98% Health Score from its latest inspection, displayed proudly next to the hostess stand inside the restaurant.
Like many immigrant chefs, Khalid’s cooking is laden with nostalgia and remembrance of his homeland – Casablanca in Morocco – where he grew up. He confesses that when he decided to open up this place, he knew there was nothing else he could name it, it had to carry a piece of Casablanca – where his journey began.
His earliest memory in the kitchen is when he was just 10 years old – the youngest among his siblings – always a keen helper in the kitchen. ‘My mother knew how much I enjoyed cooking and saw that I was good at it, so she would let me help at times. My father was away a lot on business and when he would come back, sometimes I would cook for them. They always enjoyed my food’.
Even though his commitment to the craft continued into young adulthood, Khalid explored many other professions before becoming a full-time chef. In his late teenage years, he ran a business importing and exporting clothing brands into his country from Europe. He even tried his hand at fitness training for a while. During this time he would travel to Europe frequently. That is where the amalgamation of different cultures and the possibilities it held enamored him.
‘But wherever I was, I always loved to cook for myself, somehow I never wanted anyone else to cook for me’. He tells me as he shakes his special in-house dressing for the salad in a steel flask – a mixture of Mediterranean herbs, olive oil, and lime juice.
The salad for his special Tagine was ready. He arranged a small heap on a plain white plate next to him and then in two take away containers as well. Then he scooped a few spoonfuls of his fragrant saffron rice next to the greens. Here he asked me to move closer and smell the delicious aroma of the steaming rice as he plated them: ‘Notice how every grain is separate from the other? This is how you know that your rice is perfectly cooked’ he said proudly.
Khalid made his way from Europe to America in 2005, when he finally moved to San Antonio. This is where he decided to start a new life by zoning in on his lifelong passion – cooking. It started off by taking a few cooking classes and then joining a local French restaurant in the area. French cooking is a big departure from what he makes at his own restaurant but for Khalid, it was important to learn the best techniques in the industry so he could turn his passion into a hard-earned skill. He worked as a line cook and then a chef for nearly a decade at the French place, before finally taking the leap to set up his own restaurant. ‘I knew I had moved here (USA) to build something of my own. To make use of the opportunities available here. I was not going to work under someone forever, even though he was a great boss. That was not why I came to America.’
If on a weekday night, you came into his eatery and found it relatively empty, it will be because Khalid has been packing away his glorious food in take away containers long before you arrived. On a busy day, he can get as many as 30 take away orders. His location in the city’s medical center makes it a popular spot for students and health professionals looking for wholesome food on the go. By night, the restaurant transforms into a tea and hookah café as well for shisha enthusiasts because it is among the few in the area that stays open until 2 am.
But I was here for the star of the show: the Tagine meat. The Tagine is a clay or ceramic container characteristic of Moroccan cuisine, shaped like a pyramid that is used to cook this style of meat. It helps to trap the steam inside so that the meat becomes amazingly tender and flavorful as it cooks. For me, he plated a juicy, tender piece of chicken on the bed of rice. For the takeaway containers, he approached a second pot and pulled out a scrumptious lamb shank. He finished off the plating with a few drippings of his special white sauce, a blend of sautéed chickpeas and onions, and finally some olives.
I sat down to eat and everything on this plate complimented everything else perfectly. The saffron rice is creamy and distinctly fluffy. The meat is tender and falls off the bone effortlessly and the fresh salad compliments the richness of the meat and rice.
After the delicious meal, I poured myself a cup of Khalid’s warm and hearty mint tea as I marveled at the care and joy he put in cooking and serving his food. I asked him to share what it was that he liked most about the process of cooking? He glanced into the distance and smiled, shaking his head, ‘It is just that I love it. You cannot explain it. It is like Love, how do you explain Love?’
Casablanca Moroccan Cuisine
7959 Fredericksburg Rd Ste 215
San Antonio, TX 78229
Phone number (210) 549-4031
Author: Qudsia A. Rana - https://firstname.lastname@example.org