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Desert Couscous

Casablanca worth a visit in a city with so little Moroccan food.

See more photos from Casablanca's colorful dining room and kitchen in our slideshow.

Toward the end of Ramadan, my friends and I planned an iftar dinner at Casablanca Couscous & Grill, arriving a little after 8:30 p.m. on a quiet Thursday night. It's easy to miss if you're just driving past on Richmond, save for the little gravel parking lot and a hand-painted sign on the window that says, simply, "HALAL." A more brightly lit sign faces the street, showing a palm tree and a camel — appropriate symbols for Moroccan food, a cuisine that's equally of the desert.

It's a little curious we don't have more Moroccan food in Houston, considering the breadth and depth of other available cuisines. But Casablanca remains one of only two places in town — Saffron being the other — that serve authentic couscous and tagines.

Casablanca does couscous the right way.
Troy Fields
Casablanca does couscous the right way.

It was these two items that we were in search of that evening, and they came out in large quantities courtesy of our friendly Moroccan waiter, landing on the table one after another. A pile of pearly grains topped with vivid orange chunks of carrots and stocky cubes of beef, followed by thick lamb shanks braised in plums and caramelized onions, was dazzling my tablemates. We passed them around, family-style, between pouring each other fresh glasses of hot mint tea, which tumbled sweet and dark out of the ornate silver teapots our waiter had placed on the table.

The dining room itself was humming with energy that night. Brick-red walls decorated with Moroccan antiques and jewel-toned lamps reflected the warmth in the room as tables filled with people caught up over dinner, chatting animatedly and eating as eagerly as we were. Other diners seemed just as diverse as our own group, as my Filipino friend pointed out a couple of women speaking Malay and my Lebanese friend told us stories of how she used to request couscous as a child for breakfast.

Her mother, from Senegal, makes phenomenal couscous — or so I'm told. Couscous is just as vital a dish in Senegal, which is just a short trip down Africa's western coast from Morocco, and my friend had been struggling to find good couscous in Houston. Although you'll see it on many restaurant menus, you're not seeing "authentic" couscous served the Berber way, heaped with stewed meats and vegetables and served in massive portions.

The couscous at Casablanca is fluffy and light, with well-defined pearls of semolina bouncing up against one another — never globbing together in a sticky, pasty mess or tasting gritty and undercooked. The Royal couscous topped with lamb, chicken and fat links of kafta that had landed in front of my Lebanese friend had earned her highest marks of approval.

"You have got to review this place," she breathed between huge bites.

And even if Casablanca weren't already serving wonderful couscous and savory tagines, it still bears mentioning for another key reason: It also serves Indonesian food. At Casablanca, the patrons aren't the only multiethnic thing about the restaurant.
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Moroccan native Outmane Yanouri opened Casablanca late last year after moving here from Dallas, where his family operates two other popular Moroccan restaurants: Kasbah Grill and Tangiers. (The family is clearly in the habit of giving their restaurants smartly straightforward names: "Hello! This is Moroccan food! Obviously!") But six months ago, Yanouri's wife — who is Indonesian — decided that she wanted her nation's cuisine represented in the restaurant as well. The menu was promptly split in half: Moroccan on two pages, Indonesian on the other.

I'm not so sure this was the best move for Casablanca. It's always a bad sign when a restaurant splits its focus, especially when the two cuisines are light years apart from one another. The fact that both are halal, offering food cooked according to Muslim dietary laws, seems to be the only thing uniting them outside of the bonds of marriage.

It's not that the Indonesian food is bad here; it's simply that the Moroccan food is so much better, that having the two side-by-side on a table only highlights the gap in flavor and presentation between the two. Take, for example, a recent lunch where my dining companion and I split the difference and ordered one of each.

My kafta sandwich was a beast of a thing, especially for only $6, four plump pieces of spiced sausage wrapped in a warm pita. A fine spread of tahini clung to the red tomatoes and the crispy pieces of torn romaine lettuce inside. The beef kafta had that exotic tinge of paprika and cumin and garlic that — when taken together — has the faintest, loveliest salt-tinged taste of sweat.

On the other hand, my dining partner's ayam — Indonesian fried chicken — was the saddest little quarter of a chicken either of us had ever seen. And while I understand that traditional ayam is not exactly the picture of a fat, glistening, rotisserie-style chicken, this ayam was flat-out desiccated. What little meat was left on the bones was good...if you could find any. There were traces of garlic and chile in the skin, but not enough to be even remotely spicy. And it was served unceremoniously along with a dry lump of Basmati rice and a few slices of cucumber.

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