Moroccan Spot, Casablanca, is One of the Longest-Running Restaurants in Kailua
Exploring restaurants by the Islamic community on O‘ahu means tasting flavors from Uzbekistan, Iran, Morocco and ... Italy.
Clockwise from top left: Couscous with vegetables, Lamb tagine with honey and Cornish hen with preserved lemons and olives.
One of the longest-running restaurants in Kailua is Moroccan restaurant Casablanca. It has hardly changed in the 25 years it’s been open—not the menu and not the décor, with lounge seating surrounding low tables, and textiles draped across the ceiling and walls, reminiscent of the interior of a desert caravan tent. Casablanca evokes a different time and place more than any other restaurant in Hawai‘i. It is, in this sense, a lot like Morocco, a place where the medinas, or the old walled city centers, and their mud-brick dwellings are well-preserved, and everything from bread to rugs to metalwork is still done by hand.
More than two decades later, M’hammed Benali and his brother Abdelfettah still do almost all the cooking. Restaurants they once worked in have long since closed; Benali attributes Casablanca’s success to the business being the right size—not too small, not too big.
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M’hammed Benali, co-owner of Casablanca
Forty-five years ago, Benali came to the U.S. because “We follow the bread. Our proverb in Arabic: You follow the bread, wherever it takes you.” Born in Rabat, he went to school for hotel and restaurant management, and learned to cook through immersion: “My mother cooks, grandparents cook, wherever you go, family cooks,” he says. And wherever he went, he cooked Moroccan food in Moroccan restaurants, from San Francisco to Seattle to Honolulu. He and his brother opened Casablanca in 1994, after Hajibaba in Kāhala, where he worked, shuttered.
The dishes, served as part of a $44.50 prix fixe menu, hew to the traditional, like the bstilla, a saffron chicken pie wrapped in phyllo dough and dusted with cinnamon and sugar, a seductive blend of savory and sweet. The lamb tagine, also tinged with sweetness, is stewed in a complex combination of spices, including coriander, turmeric and ginger. Benali bakes a Moroccan round bread that also serves as utensils for the food. The menu declares, “No Fork, No Knives, Just Fingers.” Says Benali: “If you eat with a fork and knife, you’re going to feel the metal [in your mouth]. But when you eat with the bread—dip it in the sauce, you carry the sauce in the bread, it absorbs the flavor.” He motions with his hand, as if expressing warmth and spice in the mouth versus cold metal. “Better pick it up with your hand. Some people bring their own fork—they hide it. They don’t have to hide it. We have if you ask. We don’t like to give fork and knife, but if they insist we do. We don’t like them to suffer.”
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As long as he can work, Benali, 68, says he will “spread the flavor of Morocco. We don’t know when we’re stopping. Wherever you live is your country, but never forget where you’re born.”
Open 6 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 19 Ho‘olai St., Kailua, (808) 262-8196
Read more stories by Martha Cheng