The Great Hassan II Mosque of Casablanca


Play it again, Sam.

Is there a more enduring image of Casablanca than the landmark Warner Brothers movie of the same name? It was a cultural phenomenon in the U.S. America had just entered the second World War; the film tackled the subjects of resistance to the Nazis and personal sacrifice for a greater cause in times of war.

But, would you believe there really is a Rick’s Cafe? It was built in 2004. The interior looks just like the one in the classic 1942 movie. It was obviously built to attract tourists.

Otherwise, Casablanca, the largest city in the kingdom of Morocco, is clogged with cars, motor bikes, industrial buildings, urban sprawl. We got stuck in commuter traffic when our tour driver (who’ll be with us the whole time) drove both from the airport to the hotel and out of town the next morning. All guide books seem to agree, there’s not much to interest tourists in Casablanca.

Except one attraction. The Hassan II Mosque.

Like the café, it’s a modern construction, completed in 1993. This is not a classic medieval mosque like the ones in Fez, but a super-duper, modernized place of worship, holding thousands of worshippers under a retractable roof, laser beam atop its minaret pointing directly to Mecca at night. It took thousands of workers six years to complete its construction.

It’s also the only mosque in the country that can be entered by non-Muslims (except during times of prayer). There are only two requirements: visitors must dress modestly (women do not have to wear scarves) and shoes removed on entering.

The approach to the mosque is quite impressive. From the entrance to the mosque doors is easily a quarter mile. The expanse serves two purposes, it seems. The first is to accommodate up to 80,000 worshippers on the outside grounds (25,000 inside); the other is to fully appreciate the size of the building, especially its 210m (670ft) minaret, as you near it.

The inside is not unlike the feeling one gets from entering a great cathedral, its soaring spaces meant to convey the ineffable. The interior space is larger than St. Paul’s in the Vatican.

I took one of the guided tours but found it chaotic, mostly because tours in different languages were being led simultaneously, and my wife and I had a hard time trying to follow the English-speaking guide among a mass of people. But, I did appreciate the architectural masterpiece that the mosque represents. If it weren’t for this visit, we would’ve hightailed it out of Casablanca directly for Rabat.

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It’s Off to Morocco


I lately have gotten fascinated with Morocco. A presentation on travel to Morocco at a local travel store convinced my wife and me that we should make it our next international destination. As a kid, I remember hearing about cities with exotic names like Casablanca, Tangier, Marrakesh and Fez, having no idea where they were. Because of the internet and travel publications, we now know more about what makes Morocco unique: the bustling, rambling medinastajines cooked in earthenware, cone-shaped namesake vessels, tile mosaics of great intricacy and pattern, argan tree-climbing goats, tanneries of Fez, Berber villages, camel treks in the Sahara Desert. How could we not experience all this?

We came across a tour company that exclusively arranges Morocco tours. It’s headquartered in the U.S. and has an office in Fez. They presented us with an itinerary to fit our budget. We would be met by a personal driver in Casablanca who would take us around the country over a span of 18 days. There would be stops in Rabat, Chefchaouen, ancient Roman ruins of Volubilis, Meknes, Fez (Fes), Erfoud, the Sahara, Todra and Dades gorges, Skoura, Ouarzazate, Taroudant, Essaouira, Marrakesh (Marrakech), El Jadida and back to Casablanca. Talk about sampling Morocco in all its splendid variety.

Cooking with tajines

Join me as I write in the coming weeks about the sights, sounds and smells of this North African kingdom. Those of you who’ve read my posts before know that I’ll be looking forward to the food, too.

(The images above are borrowed from wikipedia.)

Kona Kitchen: Ono Grinds in Seattle


Loco moco is not the first thing I’d normally order when breakfasting in Hawaii. Steamed white rice topped with a fried egg and brown gravy sound tasty enough, not so different in concept from an egg benedict really. It’s the ground beef patty that gives me pause, the potential always there for lean and rubbery meat like many a burger. Even the celebrated loco moco from Rainbow Drive-In (Honolulu) failed to impress. It’s not that I don’t like beef patties (I do); it’s just in combination with rice that doesn’t do it for me. Go figgah.

I had lunch at Kona Kitchen recently, which many consider the best Hawaiian restaurant in Seattle. On the menu was the classic loco moco. For lunch, there’s also katsu loco. Instead of ground beef, rice is topped with battered and fried chicken thighs. More than that, you have the option to substitute fried rice for white. Yowza! To me, this sounded much more appealing.

The serving size is hefty. The waiter hinted it would be a challenge to finish. Was he right. Crispy chicken katsu and an over-easy egg sat on a bed of Hawaiian-style fried rice. We’re talking an enormous quantity, an umami bomb of soy sauce-laced rice mixed with little cubes of Spam, barbecued pork and green onions. And that divine gravy! Though the rice is softer than I like, this dish alone should put Kona Kitchen on the culinary map. This couldn’t be better made on the islands.

Mochiko chicken is marinated and sweetened with sugar, batter and fried. Kona Kitchen’s is good, with hints of ginger, served with two scoops of white rice and a very good mac salad. A few nuggets were a bit dry.

Mochiko chicken

The menu also has saimin, that favorite of Hawaiian noodle soups. It also has wonton min that adds housemade wonton dumplings with the noodles, and includes a hard-cooked egg and barbecued pork. The noodles are cooked to the soft stage as Hawaiians like it.

Wonton min

On the menu are lots of Hawaiian faves, including pork lau laukalua pigHawaiian-style beef stew, Spam and Portuguese sausage as ingredients for a number of dishes, Hawaiian sweet bread. It will be tough for me to stay away from the katsu loco though. Fortunately, my daughter lives close by so sampling these other dishes is but a short drive away.

Kona Kitchen
8501 Fifth Ave NE
Seattle, WA
206-517-5662

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Eggslut, More Than a Fatuous Name


It’s pretty much a sure thing that where there is a line out a restaurant’s door, therein lies good food. The first two times I walked past Eggslut in L.A.’s Grand Central Market (GCM), the queue was astonishingly long. No other food establishment in the Market came close to being as popular. I’m not particularly keen to wait in long lines for food, so I just made a mental note, check this place out.

As a restaurant name, Eggslut is a touch bawdy, provoking curious stares and skeptical ears. It isn’t so unusual anymore when expletives litter social media and words like ass, bitch and bastard now appear in business names. Eggslut didn’t have its beginning in the Market but as a food truck, a genre crossover no longer rare. After the ‘crash’ of 2008, vacancies at GCM went up. When owner Alvin Cailan saw the empty space facing Broadway, he jumped at the chance to set up a brick-and-mortar, recognizing the similarity of the new venture to his food truck operation: serving eager customers while facing the street in a semi-enclosed space. It opened in 2013 and was an immediate hit.

I went back to GCM with my wife and sister-in-law on a weekday morning. We got there at opening (8am) when the Eggslut crowds don’t yet materialize like they do on weekends when 1,000 eggs typically get served.

The Slut is the eponymous menu item. Picture a mason jar filled with puréed potatoes and topped with an egg, which gets coddled when the jar is immersed in hot water. What’s recommended is that you stir the whole thing together, then scoop out with the accompanying buttered baguette toasts. Quite a unique preparation, the whole greater than the sum of its parts. The potatoes are nicely seasoned and buttered. The egg is barely cooked, white and yolk still jiggly, sprinkled with chives and sea salt. If you’re averse to barely cooked eggs, you likely will pass on this. For the rest of us, the Slut is a revelation, an inspired, luscious combination of simple ingredients.

The Slut partially stirred

Though the Slut is the signature dish, what might have become more popular since the transformation from food truck to Grand Central Market stand is the morning breakfast sandwich known as the Fairfax, presumably named after the street in L.A. where the truck used to ply its trade. It’s not the usual sausage, cheese and egg in an English muffin but a glorious mess of soft-scrambled eggs, cheddar, caramelized onions and chives billeted in a brioche bun. The sandwich gets zing from sriracha mayo. Optional (and extra cost) is bacon. Unless preference or dietary laws prevent it, add the bacon. The mess factor is high. After the first bite, breakfast starts to fall apart: bits of egg drop, a slurry of mayo and cooked onion liquid pools in the hand and dribbles down the arm, bacon pulls out. I saw suits with ties flipped over their shoulder. The sandwich wrap does its valiant best to stem the tide. Eyes closed, I shifted into an alternate reality that I was sad to leave when breakfast was over. Sublime.

The Fairfax

If you insist on more familiar grub, also on the menu are bacon or turkey sausage sandwiches with medium-fried egg and cheddar. There’s also a cheeseburger.

Angelinos no longer have a monopoly on such goodness. If you live in Las Vegas or NYC, there’s an Eggslut near you, too.

Eggslut
317 S. Broadway, Stall D-1
Los Angeles, CA 90013
213.625.0292

Wow, Vegan Ramen? You Betcha!


OG Ramen (image from ramenhoodla.com)

Any pretensions I had that a good vegetarian ramen could never be made was dashed recently. The revelation happened when my sister-in-law had me sample her OG Ramen from Ramen Hood, a completely vegan stall in Los Angeles’ Grand Central Market. Visually, it looks like a ‘typical’ ramen, broth like milky tonkotsu, slices of chashu floating on top, a square of nori poking up along bowl’s edge, a pinch of chile threads sprinkled on top. It lacked for nothing in presentation. Yet, as I was ready to taste the broth, I had serious doubts that it would be remotely interesting. So imagine how stunned I was, not that it was anything like meat-based ramen broth but that it was in and of itself so savory, complex and substantial.

How in the world did the chefs pull this off? This from their website:

Our broth is made by simmering kelp and shiitake mushrooms to extract their maximum umami. Then we roast sunflower seeds with white miso and combine that mixture with the kelp/mushroom stock. Then it is all pressure cooked to release the natural oils and starches from the seeds. What’s left is a rich, creamy, broth that rivals it’s non-vegan counterparts flavor and texture.

Never underestimate the genius of creative chefs. The ramen tastes genuine. Recent converts to vegetarianism might be moved to tears, genuflect at the feet of its creators. I still prefer tonkotsu or miso ramen, more because slices of king oyster mushrooms would never replace slices of tender chashu, and vegan ‘eggs,’ though they’re ingeniously made at Ramen Hood (including yolk that oozes), can’t substitute for perfectly made ajitsuke tamago. But, as a change of pace or to take a break from animal products, I wouldn’t hesitate to devour a bowl of OG ramen. A wondrous achievement.

Ramen Hood
(Grand Central Market, Stall C2)
317 S. Broadway Street
Los Angeles, CA 90013

Siwash Rock, Vancouver Seawall


The Seawall is the best walk in all of Vancouver, B.C. Siwash Rock is only one of many splendiferous views along the way.

Lions Gate Bridge

One Big Family


Brent Jones is a friend who takes his Canon EOS 5D Mark IV on all his outings. He uses a telephoto lens quite a bit, taking pictures of many animals ‘up close.’ His recent visit to Woodland Park Zoo here in Seattle a week ago had many excellent subjects, none more endearing than the orangutan, who reminds me that we are close cousins.

Orangutan, Woodland Park Zoo, image by Brent Jones