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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Tagine dreams

Travels with Frenchie

Posted on Wed, Dec 30, 2009 at 4:00 AM

Release Date: 2009-12-30

It’s the end of the month, and therefore time for another installment of Travels with Frenchie, the monthly food series in which a trio of culturally mismatched San Antonians explores the city in search of dining adventure. As always, the culinary vice squad consisted of: Frenchie (aka Fabien Jacob, sommelier at Sandbar), Carlos the Bike Mechanic (aka Carlos Montoya, a man who lives off of gourmet candy and rib-eye steaks), and me (a recovering vegan with a wandering eye). As our special guest this month, we were joined by Dr. Jennifer Mathews, an anthropologist and author of the recent book Chicle: The Chewing Gum of the Americas From the Ancient Maya to William Wrigley. More on her book in a second.

 A few weeks ago, after trying unsuccessfully to dine at a Filipino restaurant in Leon Valley (it was closed for the day), I discovered a sign for a new restaurant called Moroccan Bites. (Interestingly, next door to Moroccan Bites construction was under way on a new Pakistani barbecue restaurant, which we promise to return to when it opens.) Yes, this was a lot of variety, which made me realize this short stretch of Evers between 410 and Wurzbach is clearly the modern-day Ellis Island of San Antonio, and offers more international dining options per yard than anywhere else in the city: Italian, Thai, Middle Eastern, Mexican, Indian, Chinese, Vietnamese, now Moroccan, and soon Pakistani.

I had to pull over to contemplate the deeper implications. At informal Southtown cultural reeducation camps I was taught that inside the Loop is “good” and outside the Loop is “bad.” Weeks later, after letting this new reality set in, I entered Moroccan Bites to find Fabien talking to the staff in French. Evidently, they recognized him from our previous articles, which set the stage for an amazing meal and the realization that we might need to bill the Current for some wigs and fake moustaches to disguise ourselves better in the future.

Moroccan Bites offers a great variety of tastes and flavors for a modestly priced, casual dining experience. Our meal began with traditional hot mint tea, sweetened with sugar and poured by the waiter from a dramatic height, which Frenchie told us is customary for Moroccan restaurants. Frenchie was quite pleased with the restaurant’s authenticity. We began with some simple appetizers — white beans, lentils, olives, and cauliflower. The legumes were properly cooked, the olives hinted at a Mediterranean connection, and the steamed cauliflower was an unlikely hit with Carlos, who typically favors four-legged food. In general, the appetizers were clean, healthy, and popular, but not the crucial items on the menu.

While debating which main courses to order, we discussed Jennifer’s new book, from tidbits about how Santa Anna helped introduce chewing gum to America, to the wild and crazy lifestyle of the chicleros of the Yucatan, with whom we surmised Carlos might share some ancestral roots. Soon, a parade of dishes came our way. First, the kafta beef patties and merguez sausages served over a bed of saffron rice. Again, these dishes were quite simple and straightforward but well-executed. The rice was perfectly cooked; the meat had a hint of spice but was not spicy. In some ways this could be a very “American” meal — no complex sauces, just meat and starch. However, one can easily add some harissa, a traditional red chili sauce with olive oil, to heat things up.

We treated the kefta and merguez as another round of appetizers for the real main course: the couscous and lamb tagine. The tagine is an earthen cooking and serving dish for slow stewed meats, fruits, nuts, and vegetables. We were allowed to order a “sweeter” lamb tagine off-menu. For me, this is the dish to order. Moroccan cuisine is known for cooked fruits such as apricots, lemons, prunes, and raisins. The slow-cooked lamb was combined with cooked prunes and almonds, providing a delicious and unique range of sweet to savory flavors. The couscous was an abundant dish served with a variety of colorful vegetables including zucchini, carrots, and potatoes, with lamb hiding underneath. This was practically a vegetarian dish, with the lamb used in moderation. The couscous is served on Fridays only so factor that in when deciding when to drop in. And don’t be afraid to ask the server for suggestions. Almost everyone should find something to like.

Final Thoughts

Frenchie: I love the authenticity; this is real Moroccan food. The couscous will keep me coming back.

Carlos: They used quality ingredients, the kitchen was spotless, and the food was allowed to speak for itself, with no overpowering sauces or heavy toppings.

Jennifer: My favorite dish was the tagine with lamb, almonds, and prunes: I loved the sweet and savory flavor combination. I would definitely go back.

Jones: Moroccan Bites is run by a wonderful family. They initially moved from Morocco to New Orleans, thinking people still spoke French there. They moved here during the Katrina Diaspora. For our sake, I hope San Antonio will become their permanent home. •


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