"The Ottomans went a lot of places," Kasbah Moroccan Cafe co-owner Naji Bouhmid says as he takes our order, "but they never came to Morocco."
In a tiny salmon-toned Old Town breakfast-and-lunch counter-service spot—advertised by the unlikely smiling face of Bill Murray on a poster from ill-fated film Rock the Kasbah—Bouhmid is a warm ambassador for a Moroccan cuisine he's eager to differentiate from Greek- and Turkish-inflected Mediterranean and Middle Eastern fare. The cuisine, like the language, is a unique mélange of Spanish, French, Arab and Berbere influences.
Once home only to theme restaurants like Marrakesh, Portland has recently welcomed an influx of more casual Moroccan fare; Kasbah is the second excellent quick-service spot with cooks from food haven Fez to open in Portland in the past two years, alongside food cart La Camel and its sublime lamb-shank tagine. Bouhmid, for his part, learned to cook seriously from a neighbor in Fez who'd served the country's onetime king.
Whatever you do at Kasbah, always get the bastilla ($7), the almond and chicken pastry that is one of the world's truly great comfort foods. The cinnamon- and sugar-dusted bun arrives hearth-warm, sweet and savory and blooming with coriander—made with airy, flaky warka dough that's a slightly more ethereal cousin of the phyllo used in baklava, its layered leaves so thin they're practically transparent. Once you've had the bastilla here, you will crave it anytime you're nearby. Consider it a reminder always to escape Old Town by 5 pm, the time Kasbah closes on weekdays.
If you're eating in, get the tray of sweet mint tea—which Bouhmid may teach you how to serve by filling the cups often and shallowly, raising the tea kettle high to allow the hot tea to both cool and breathe even before it hits the cup.
Tagines—stews named after the dish they're cooked and often served in—are probably the most familiar of Moroccan cuisines for most Americans. Among the hearty tomato-stewed versions served here alongside griddled sunnyside-up eggs, go for the tender kefteh meatball stew over the somewhat rubbery merguez, and find as much comfort there as from any Sicilian grandma. I did find myself longing, however, for the pungent Spanish olives I fell in love with in the tagines of Spain and Tangier, over the generous pile of familiar Italian greens on offer here.
What makes Kasbah unique in town are its wide array of starters, such as the housemade batbot flatbread served with a three-deep array of intense sauces for $8 (or $3.50 singly), including a zaalouk eggplant puree bracingly dense with fresh garlic, a bakoula dip of wilted greens and olives, and a blessedly spicy bissara that's a bit like a fava bean cousin of hummus.
The salads are a pungent school in North African spice and bright acidity, from a beautiful cilantro-cumin-cinnamon carrot salad ($3.50) laden with surprising heat to a vinegared potato salad topped with egg ($3.50) that puts the Germans to sad shame, and a refreshing, fast-pickled beet salad topped with parsley and onion ($3.50).
For breakfast, Kasbah offers eggier versions of the kefteh and merguez, a saucy omelet of the day that came, on our day, with a wealth of olives and veggies, and a cream cheese- and kefta-stuffed batbot pita made into a breakfast sandwich by the addition of egg ($6.50). Immediately, it's one of my favorite breakfast sandwiches in town—toasty, fatty and spicy. But if you ask nicely, you might be able to get that bastilla meat doughnut in the morning as well—proof that Christmas spice can come early even in a terrible year.
EAT: Kasbah Moroccan Cafe, 201 NW Davis St., 971-544-0875. 7 am-5 pm Monday-Friday, 11:30 am-7:30 pm Saturday.