Restaurant Reviews

Thank Heaven

It's easy to get a sense of where the cash registers rang up cups of coffee and pouches of teriyaki jerky. You can tell by the cameras fastened to the ceiling tiles. Four of them are visible, and their site lines converge on an area near the four banquettes lined up on the south end of the dining room.

"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.

Initially, half the space was devoted to the market, with six rows of shelving loaded with foodstuffs. It even had a fresh meat case. But the menu got so popular that the Yanouri brothers decided to gradually scuttle Kasbah's market leg. They hope to liquidate what remains over the next couple of months and install a private dining area in the space where Slurpee and Big Gulp machines once churned.

Yanouri says he pillaged his mother's recipes to build this menu, and he will drape more of her creations over its Moroccan skeleton frame as the market withers away. For now, Kasbah has three tagines, the slightly sweet North African stews named for the dish as well as the traditional clay pot in which it is stewed. Tagines are typically invigorated with garlic, onion, cumin, cinnamon and sometimes allspice and ground ginger sparking slow-cooked beef, lamb and chicken. Fes chicken tagine is a piece of breast slumbering in a fatigue-green preserved lemon sauce prodigiously bumped with Spanish green olives. A fluffy bump of rice rests nearby. Lamb kabobs, four blackened nuggets of richly savory (though slightly dry) lamb on a bleach white mound of grains surrounded by roasted peppers, are stunning.

As a 7-Eleven denuded of Little Debbie and chili-lime-flavored Big Eats Griller Sausages might suggest, Kasbah is minimalist in demeanor. The tables are simple metal frames brimmed with resin trapping tiles and stones. A boom box, parked on a wooden shelf near the front window, blasts Moroccan compositions with voices weaving though rolling strings of microtones. Walls sweat a street-market stock of decorative mirrors, plates, muskets, old shutters, dishes, sconces and paintings of sparse Moroccan landscapes. A wire rack stocked with Muslim phone books is posted near the door.

At lunch, Kasbah absorbs a steady trickle of utility workers, Irving cops and business people furiously working Palm Pilots and cell phones. They slurp soup and devour sandwiches, which include shawarmas--beef, chicken or lamb slowly roasted, garnished with lettuce, tomatoes and garlic sauce and wrapped in pita. The sandwiches also include falafel.

The falafel is swaddled in pita blankets too. Wrapped in thin paper and foil, the tasty sandwich dribbles milky garlic sauce. Chunks of crispy spicy falafel--patties of fried chickpea--are jumbled with lettuce, tomato and pickles. A small plastic ramekin (no industrial tubes this time) of fierce red pepper sauce provides electric drizzle.

Kasbah Grill is a remarkable outpost. It's hard to imagine squeezing more buck bangs out of a menu. But more important than strict value, Kasbah is a rich breath of sensuality that is as uncommon as its digs are pedestrian: a weirdly wonderful hash of convenience and exotica. 2851 Esters Road, Irving, 214-596-9206. Open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday and Tuesday-Thursday, and 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday $-$$

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Mark Stuertz
Contact: Mark Stuertz

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