521 SW 9th Ave., 778-0604. Lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday.
Karim Baziou moved to the United States from his native Morocco 15 years ago. But it's been almost 30 years since he got his start in restaurants, as a 16-year-old working in his family's restaurant in Fez, one of Morocco's great food cities, before selling paintings to help finance his own cafe and catering business, which still operates in Fez today.
After moving to the U.S., he worked as a chef and manager in restaurants, but kept noticing a lack of traditional Moroccan food in Portland—aside from tiny Tangier downtown and swanky Marrakesh in Nob Hill. He had dreams of opening a restaurant again.
His downtown cart, La Camel, which he opened a little over a year ago, is now one of the best—and most affordable—Moroccan spots in the city. "People don't want to pay $30 or $40 for a Moroccan meal," he says, but adds, "It's some of the best food in the world if it's cooked correctly."
His cart does not serve Americanized fare. "I make my food how I would eat it in Morocco," he says, although he will make modifications for allergies.
His tiny cart offers impressive variety, offering seafood paellas ($8.50-$9), couscous dishes and Moroccan sandwiches ($7.75-$8.75). But the centerpiece is the tagines—the slow-cooked, clay-pot cuisine of Morocco. The tagine-cooked lamb shank ($12) is Flintstones-thick, and the kefta tagine ($8.75) is a juicy stew of lamb meatballs and tomato topped with egg and dotted with olives, leaving a lingering aftertaste that nonetheless understays its welcome.
In the future, Baziou would still like to open a restaurant. But that's still a ways off, he says.
"At the moment, I'll just focus on establishing myself and making a connection with the people. It doesn't come easy," he says. "If you don't love what you're doing, you're not going to last. That's what keeps me going."