By Amy McCarthy
By Scott Reitz
By Scott Reitz
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
By City of Ate
"It used to be a 7-Eleven," says the bespectacled guy behind the counter. "You can tell if you stand outside and look in." Outside, the parking lot slumps into a bowl, cupping rainwater or runoff into a quasi reflecting pool. But it doesn't take a posting outside to tease out the convenience store pedigree. Just look to the north end of the dining room. Two-thirds of one wall is a refrigerated case stocked with feta cheese, yogurt drinks, lemonade, bottled water and soda. Gone are the cans of beer and the Red Bull.
Off to the right is a rack with other foodstuffs, from 5-pound sacks of couscous and a few jars of pickles and garlic paste, to boxes of masa, basmati, tea and black henna, to bottles of rose water.
But these are (literally) side issues. The most important element of Kasbah Grill is the menu. Kasbah is a depot of Moroccan cuisine, stranded in the near-featureless Irving landscape where the only note of distinction is the steady roaring stream of propelled aluminum making its way overhead to D/FW International. "We're in the middle of nowhere," says chef Khalid Yanouri, who founded Kasbah with his brother Ahmed. Still, the abandoned convenience store is located just down the street from the Islamic Center of Irving, so they figured there was a ready audience to build from.
Everything at Kasbah, Yanouri insists, is prepared from scratch, from the rich aromatic sauces, to the roasted meats and the fluffy couscous. And Moroccan cuisine isn't simple. It's a lush culinary raiment woven from cumin, ginger, paprika, olives, onions, garlic, pickled lemons, cinnamon and couscous--heap upon heap of couscous. Beans, meat, carrot, zucchini and parsley are among the accessories tumbled over the drifts of plumped semolina grains.
Couscous dishes span a small range, from vegetarian to royal, the latter of which can be had with chicken or lamb. Royal is a conspicuous spread of golden couscous that hoists great hunks of carrot and zucchini while chickpeas stubble the spaces in between. A lamb shank is bedded down in the center--slow-cooked meat slipping off the bone, shedding the stew-weakened tissues that bind it to the shank. It's juicy and flavorful; vegetables are firm, bright and tasty. But in case you discover a spice deficiency, a fat metal tube is delivered with the plate, so that beads of dark red hot sauce can be squeezed out and stirred into the grains.
Kasbah Grill has a remarkably slender menu: small enough to fit on a photo-rich doorknob hanger, hundreds of which are stacked on a wooden rack near the door. The front counter, where orders are absorbed and later dispensed, spans the front of an immaculate kitchen. Arches are carved into the wall in front of the counter, the slopes dropping into staggered, notched angles like a row of jagged portholes. Large menu boards are neatly fitted into the arches.
Once the kitchen has ground out a full plate, counter guards carry it--heaped with couscous or rice, stringing ribbons of steam through the dining room--to the tables. Sometimes the service is ritualized. Moroccan tea, steeped green tea laced with sugar and mint, arrives in an ornate metal pot swirled with paisley. The pot is so hot that a thick pad, drenched in bright green, blue and red (with gold fringe), is wrapped around the handle. The server pours tea from the pot into a blue glass cup, raising the pot high above the glass before dropping it so that the stream lengthens, pulls apart and then collapses together, dispersing barbs of hot spray as the stream fluctuates. Then he pours the tea back into the pot and repeats the ritual two more times before filling the glasses with tea to be drunk. It's a mix ritual, he explains.
The tea is good--restrained if you tell them to throttle back the sweetness, which is advisable if you want to be fully engaged by the food. This is a worthy pursuit. Soup, a traditional Moroccan blend of lentils, chickpeas and tomatoes, is deliciously smooth and hearty with just a hint of chickpea grip on the finish. There are salads too--Caesar, Kasbah (lettuce, cucumber, tomato, beets, carrots) and Greek--in two sizes. Greek salad is typical in assemblage. The dressing is ferociously lemony, fumigated by a muscular oregano punch. Tomatoes are faded, partial red onion rings are hair-like, and feta is a sizable centerpiece chunk instead of crumbles dispersed across the spread. Olives--real Greek ones--are clustered around the edges. Greens are blemish-free, though they're more white and faded than they are steeped in the deep green of chlorophyll virility.
The path the Yanouri brothers traversed to Kasbah is a weird one. Both studied molecular biology at Texas Woman's University (Ahmed snagged a doctorate). They were active in the International Student Association there, where members would take turns hosting dinners featuring the cuisines from their homeland. "People looked forward to the Moroccan food," Khalid says. This is what inspired them to secure the convenience store space and meticulously refurbish it themselves over the course of eight months.