Date Night - Week 7: Kous Kous Cafe
USC teacher Abdel Khila shares his passion for Moroccan food and culture with the community at his Kous Kous Café.
A friendly face awaited us in the tiny kitchen at the back of the Moroccan restaurant at 665 Washington Rd. in Mt. Lebanon: Abdel Khila, former French and Arabic teacher at the high school who took a leave of absence from teaching to follow his dream and open his own restaurant -- Kous Kous Café.
At 6’8’’ tall, Abdel towered over the glass partitions that separate the kitchen from the intimate 28-seat dining room. He gave Jeremy and I a wave and a smile and then went back to his cooking -- he’s the only chef in the restaurant, aided only by two servers (one being his mother, Mrs. Habiba), and he had two other tables of hungry guests.
Food, for Abdel, is a family affair. He grew up in Marrakesh, Morocco and lived there until 1997, when he came to the states with a degree in hotel and restaurant management. Abdel worked for a stint at Walt Disney World then explored his culinary interests in a variety of roles at a number of restaurants throughout the states. But his love of food started at home in Morocco (located on in northwest Africa) where the food has been influenced by the likes of the Spanish, French, Portuguese, Arab, and Jewish populations who have settled (or invaded) the tiny country.
Mrs. Habiba does so much more than serve her son’s food to their guests. Her years and years of cooking and serving thousands of Moroccan meals to her family continually shapes the menu at Kous Kous Café, and she has a hand in much of the food preparation, including the Moroccan flatbread that accompanies every meal.
Abdel insists on freshness and quality – most ingredients are locally grown. The menu features grass fed lamb and beef, free-range chicken, and seasonal vegetables from the Amish Eastbrook Homestead and Meadowlark farms. All spices are imported from Morocco to add to the authenticity of the experience. Most everything on the menu is cooked from scratch, so Abdel can make some accommodations for spiciness, though most Moroccan food isn’t uncomfortably hot.
The family influence and authenticity of the meals go beyond the food – Abdel’s brother is responsible for some of the paintings and the decorations are from Morocco – table lamps, light fixtures, tiles, teapots, breadbaskets and even the ornately decorated “tagines” for serving some of the traditional dishes.
Unable to decide on individual appetizers, Jeremy and I started off with the Moroccan Platter made up of smaller portions of eggplant zaalouk, roasted peppers tak-tooka, hummus and pita chips. ($8.50) Though hummus isn’t a traditional Moroccan food, it was one of the top suggestions from his USC students so he included it on the menu – and we’re lucky that he did! The dips on the platter were fresh and the ingredients top-notch; the pita bread was out-of-the-oven warm and fragrant.
Jeremy’s grilled shrimp kebab was marinated in Moroccan spices, grilled and served with a mild roasted pepper sauce, saffron rice and vegetables. ($22.95) The meat-hungry guy that he is devoured Abdel’s seasonal vegetables – squashes, potatoes and carrots cooked simply in a mild sauce. (He ate his shrimp, too, and enjoyed it immensely, but that’s generally a given!)
There was only one vegetarian entrée on the menu: a vegetable couscous in a mildly spicy Moroccan tomato sauce. ($15.95) The vegetables again were the highlight of the dish – enormous slices of peppers, carrots, potatoes and onions that were cooked simply, highlighting the natural tastes of the veggies themselves, complimented by the mild yet flavorful sauce. The serving was enormous (and I was already stuffed full of pita and dips) so I ended up taking half of it home.
The dessert menu highlighted the French influence on Moroccan cuisine, and we went with the chocolate mousse over the crème brulee or Moroccan cookies. It was soft and moist and delightful, and despite full stomachs we managed to clean the bowl.
Jeremy and I promised to return – he had a number of other dishes on his wish list, and I want to sample some of Abdel’s fresh juices, soups, and Moroccan mint tea.
The dining room was full for most of our meal, but before we left we had a chance to chat briefly with Abdel and his mother. I was thrilled to see how satisfied Abdel seems with his endeavor – he never stopped smiling as he talked about his work.
What I didn’t know: he has recently returned to USC, stepping in at one of the middle schools for a teacher who is on leave throughout the end of the school year. Abdel speaks English, French, Arabic, Spanish, and Czech and Moroccan and has a master’s in education, and he expressed his happiness at being back in the classroom in addition to the kitchen.
He’s not sure at this point how long he’ll be teaching, but shrugged his shoulders and said he was glad to be back in the classroom, but with a modest pride, said that “I’ll always have my business.”
His students, and his restaurant guests are both very, very lucky. Thanks, Abdel!
Visit Kous Kous Café:
Friday – Saturday 5-10
(Closed Sunday and Monday)
BYOB ($5 corking fee per bottle)