The newly opened Casablanca restaurant at the corner of W. San Francisco Street and Burro Alley is not a white house. The culinary appeal of Casablanca the film has been dead ever since Denny's included the "Play It Again, Slam" on its so-called Grand Slam menu. So we'll assume a genuine and welcome Moroccan connection.
The menu, however, is the usual broad-based Mediterranean and North African amalgam of cultural influences—from baba ghanoush to baklava, from couscous to kebabs—filtered through the lens of American ingredients. There's nothing so distinct as a tajine on offer, for example.
There are unexpected additions though: pizzettas on pita crusts and a slate of breakfast burritos and omelets.
After sampling the beef shawarma sandwich, the falafel sandwich, a tahini salad, platters of tabouleh and dolmas, and the requisite breakfast burrito, I am prepared to declare them fine.
Not "fine" as implied by the sign above the door that reads "fine Mediterranean restaurant," but fine as in "acceptable," fine as in "edible."
But there's no point in beating up on a restaurant that's only been open for a few days. Everyone needs time to iron out the kinks. And who among us can be anything but inappropriately aroused by the potential for downtown—right next to the Lensic downtown, right across from Matador downtown—access to falafel?
Central Santa Fe's soul needs Casablanca to succeed. But I doubt I can help by asking who thinks pita really makes the best pizza crust or why the s'hug hot sauce is so bullied by the overriding flavor of jalapeño or what condiment mobster is preventing my falafel from being absolutely slathered in tahini.
Instead, I'd rather fantasize about the San Francisco Street Med café of my dreams.
If it's bold enough to serve breakfast burritos across the street from Tia Sophia's, it should be bold enough to serve some unconventional burritos. A falafel and harissa potato breakfast burrito would be a good start—handheld please, for busy downtown workers and the later bar crowd. Or how about fried eggplant and tahini, or shawarma with tabouleh-scrambled eggs and a spicy kalamata tapenade? Or maybe a falafel, bacon and fried egg breakfast sandwich. Forget what convention says is Mediterranean or Southwestern—steal from both and use everything in between. Why not a lamb merguez tempura with a green chile baba ghanoush?
OK, not every off-the-cuff idea makes a menu item, but creativity is the key. The tater tots that came with my breakfast burrito at Casablanca are a good start—kinda weird, but also fun. I don't want the same kefta I can get at a thousand carts and counters across the country. I want something to remember. I want something to covet. I want something to brag about: "You know a lot of people think Paris has the best falafel—some say Beirut, some say Tel Aviv—but the truth is, Santa Fe does."
The falafel sandwich is key, as is a hand-ground blend of garbanzo and fava beans. The pita must be fresh-baked—not too doughy—and drenched in a tahini balanced enough to not taste like halvah. The hot sauce must be perfect and plentiful, piquant and complex, mean enough to catch in your throat as you inhale but temperate enough to be tenderly tongued. Additional ingredients should span a host of creative options: cabbage, escabeche, hand-cut french fries, rice, radishes and mozzarella balls. And why not that fried egg again?
The Casablanca of my dreams serves until at least 11 pm, if only on the weekends (and Tuesdays, please!), and if only a limited menu of carry-out falafel, kebab and shawarma.
Casablanca is a couple of weeks away from being able to accept credit cards and a couple of months away from getting its beer and wine license. The dust is still settling and the future is unclear. Maybe it can evolve toward the jaw-dropping joint of my dreams to be the envy of Paris. Maybe it has a more modest and refined future.
Either way, as-salamu alaykum and good luck.
Open 7 am-9:30 pm daily
207 W. San Francisco St.
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