Latifa Ghafai wanted to spend more time with her hardworking children. So, with $300 and an undercover plan, she engineered a restaurant success story in Leon Valley her children never envisioned.
"She said I got a restaurant. I'm like tacos?" Wafa Elmaroudi recalled. "She goes like no! I'm going to cook Moroccan food."
Elmaroudi, sister Nadia, and brother Youssef careers kept them way too busy for their Moroccan mother. Unbeknownst to her children, the 69-year-old saw a space available in a Leon Valley strip mall. It was a small restaurant with six tables connected to an old vacuum cleaner shop.
"She called the owner. She did the Moroccan way. She gave him $300," Elmaroudi said.
Ghafai told the man to hold the space for her. When he tried to give her a receipt she said: "I'll come back."
Her next step was to convince her children to give up their careers. They were not interested in leaving their jobs, so Ghafai made the deal flexible. She'd open the restaurant each day when they got home from work.
"It's mother and we want to do whatever she says," Elmardoudi said.
October 2009 is when the restaurant opened with the name Moroccan Bites Tagine that was Elmardoui and brother Youssef's idea.
She said Moroccan cuisine is so vast, their business is providing just bites of their native food. Her brother wanted to name the place after the pot Moroccan's cook their food in (Tangine).
Elmardoui said her mother didn't give customers a menu when they first opened. Ghafai would go to the kitchen and simply prepare a meal she thought they'd like.
Apparently, paying for the food was on the honor system. Ghafai didn't know how to correctly count back American currency. So, the customers were allowed to leave and come back later to pay.
"Just go when my daughter comes just pay," Ghafai said. "If they don't like my food I don't want their money."
Elmaroudi said everything they helped her mother set the restaurant up with was used. They thought the place would shutdown in six months, but Mama knows best and the restaurant started to flourish.
In fact, Moroccan Bites got recognized by the San Antonio Express-News which had customers lined up outside their door. They also got a call from the Food Network that really put the business on the map.
"You can not do a Moroccan restaurant in San Antonio.Everybody eats tacos," Elmaroudi said.
Ghafai's daughter had to eat her words because mama's hunch was on the money. Eight years later, Ghafai's six table restaurant now seats 250. Movie stars like Mark Wahlberg have even indulged in their Moroccan eats.
"Moroccan food is lamb, vegetables, chicken, vegetables. It's always vegetables," Elmaroudi said. " It's always stew. It's always roasted or steamed."
Neighborhood Eats got sampled their lamb shank tangine with vegetables. Que Rico!
Kefta Tangine was also on the taste test. It's small lamb meatballs with egg cooked in the center of the dish. If you want to eat it the Moroccan way then break a piece bread, dip using two fingers to sop up gravy and the meat. Wonderful!
Moroccan Bites served Neighborhood Eats a bevy of baklava. These are not overly sweet, at all. These eats are delicious. The varieties are almond, walnut, and pistachio. There are far too many other cookies, cakes, and eclairs to name.
Neighborhood Eats washed all this food down with refreshing mint tea.
Moroccan Bites Tagine may represent northwestern Africa but the owners make you feel right at home.
Don't see a Moroccan meal on the menu you like? Tell them. They will whip it up for you. No frills or fancy presentations here. Sometimes you want to go where the restaurant serves authenticity.
That's this week's Neighborhood Eats. If you have a suggestion for Marvin send him an email (Mhurst@kens5.com), tweet (@Mhurstkens5) or post it on the KENS 5 Facebook page. #KENS5EATS