Restaurateur and his Moroccan mother-in-law team up to bring new flavors to local dining scene

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World photo

Yasine Marouazi is shown inside his restaurant, Argana Cafe, in July 2020. Marouazi opened the restaurant with his mother-in-law after his family move Lawrence last year and discovered there area offered little in Moroccan food.

A U.S. passport doesn’t work as well as it used to in helping you see the world, but maybe a bowl of couscous will. (I wouldn’t suggest trying to hand it to the TSA officer at airport security though.)

Of course, that’s not what I’m talking about it. Instead, food might be the most realistic way to experience faraway places right now, and the owner of a new Moroccan restaurant thinks his menu can accommodate.

“You can put your country on the map to so many people just through food,” said Yasine Marouazi, owner of the new Argana Cafe at 1606 W. 23rd Street. “I think food is the best way to introduce your country.”

For Marouazi, that means the northern African country of Morocco, whose most famous dish is likely couscous, a meal of seasoned, small balls of durum wheat semolina. The grain is becoming more popular in mainstream, U.S. grocery stores, but Marouazi said you often don’t see the dish made in a true Moroccan way.

“Couscous salad doesn’t exist in Morocco,” Marouazi said. “We don’t put it in the microwave and throw some tomatoes and vegetables in it.”

Instead, making couscous in a Moroccan fashion takes at least two hours, he said. That’s why the dish isn’t on the menu every day, but rather the restaurant makes it for its Friday menu.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World photo

Glasses of Moroccan mint tea, along with a colorful tagine dish, are shown at Lawrence’s Argana Cafe in July 2020. The tagine is used to both steam and serve several Moroccan dishes.

Marouazi grew up in Morocco, but has been in America for many years. Until last year, he and his family were in Illinois, where he had made a career working for and owning several restaurants. After moving to Lawrence when Marouazi’s wife took a job in the community, his family realized there weren’t many Moroccan offerings, which led him to do something he hadn’t done before — open a Moroccan-style restaurant. His previous restaurant experience had all been in American-style establishments. Working with his native food has been both fun and eye-opening, he said.

“Now I appreciate how hard my mother was working,” he said. “I thought the food on the table was easy to make. I can tell you now that it is not.”

Marouazi doesn’t have his mother to help with the cooking, but he does have his mother-in-law leading the kitchen. Hasna Laabidi has been cooking Moroccan food for at least 40 years, he said. And that means she is an expert in spices, because spices are a critical part of Moroccan cuisine, Marouazi said.

“We use a lot of saffron and cumin,” he said.

Both spices grow well in Morocco, as do lots of other unique ingredients, Marouazi said. In fact, the restaurant takes its name from one of them. Argan is a type of tree that is native to Morocco, and it produces an oil that isn’t quite like olive oil — several sites say it is creamier and nuttier — but is often used as a dipping sauce for bread and an ingredient for other dishes.

Sometimes the ingredients are common, but what Moroccan chefs do to them is not. For example, citrus fruits are abundant in Morocco, which has led to pickled lemon being a common ingredient. Marouazi said the process of pickling a lemon involves soaking them in a solution of salt and olive oil and other ingredients for two weeks or more. Additionally, Argana offers pickled butter. I don’t have the basics on that, but if pickling makes it socially acceptable to eat a stick of butter like you eat a deli pickle, my family will learn the technique.

As for specific dishes on Argana’s menu, Marouazi said the beef tajine is popular. That is slow-braised veal with spices, dried plums and apricots. Also popular is a huge, heavily seasoned lamb shank cut and a dish Marouazi refers to as Moroccan meatballs, which is spiced meat in a savory sauce of braised tomatoes. The menu has a few dishes that aren’t pure Moroccan. Those include a beef or lamb gyro sandwich, and rotisserie chicken that is stuffed with fresh garlic, parsley, and many spices from the region.

“My mother-in-law does all the spices. I do the rotisserie part,” Marouazi said.

Some of the side dishes also have strong flavors from Morocco or the broader region. Moroccan tea has a special type of mint grown in the country and also za’atar, which is a mix of spices that Marouazi describes as Moroccan oregano. The menu also includes a garbanzo bean-based soup called harira that Marouazi expects will be popular during the fall and winter.

Marouazi is looking ahead to those times when dining out might be back to more normal levels. He acknowledged it has been difficult to start the restaurant — which has been open about a week — during the pandemic. But he said the building is equipped with a take-out window, and it does curbside delivery, as well.

“I know the timing to open is not the right time,” he said. “But we praise God and believe that hard work will pay off. We just want to be here to serve the community and cook the food we love.”

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World photo

The Argana Cafe is located at 1606 W. 23rd Street, in the building that years ago housed a Pizza Hut.


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