The sign at the door welcomed me to Morocco, and I glanced around to see if there were any camels or itinerant rug merchants along this stretch of Lincoln Boulevard in Venice. None appeared, so I shrugged and went into Casablanca, which I assumed had been a Moroccan restaurant before it was converted into a Mexican seafood place.
I was wrong about that – while restaurants occasionally change cuisine but not decor, this was not one of them. Casablanca has a more interesting story, of a talented chef who had such a fascination with a golden age film that he decided to theme his restaurant around it.
From the “Casablanca” movie posters and murals to the life-size statue of Humphrey Bogart in the corner, everything celebrates the 1943 film, and film students will swoon at some of the items here. The setting alone guarantees that this restaurant will have a clientele of cinema fans, kitsch-loving hipsters, and people who just appreciate the strangeness of it all. The food Casablanca serves ensures that these oddballs will be joined by people who like to eat.
Chef Carlos Haro didn’t try to cook Moroccan food – which is appropriate because you didn’t see Bogart or Claude Rains eating kebabs and couscous in the film. The restaurant has always served Mexican seafood, and under his son Carlos Jr. it still does.
The only jarring element in the Moroccan d/cor is the griddle in the middle of the restaurant where a busy woman makes fresh flour tortillas for every diner. Within moments of being seated some arrived at our table along with a tomatillo sauce that included a few cubes of cotija cheese – a different start than the usual chips and red salsa, and quite welcome.
The menu has the usual Mexican standards plus a few steaks and pastas, but we zeroed in on the seafood, eventually deciding on calamari steak and trout “Senor Ferrari.” (We may have been swayed by the opportunity to order something named after a movie villain.)
We started with a salad and margaritas – one Cadillac, one “Bogart Margarita,” both made with fresh juice. (They also offer a low end margarita from a mix, but get the fresh versions. Trust me on this one.) The salad was typical except for the addition of jicama, but the dressings weren’t – along with the usual suspects, avocado and tequila-based dressings were offered. Neither had the flavor we expected – the tequila dressing was not strongly alcoholic and the avocado wasn’t thick and unctuous. The tequila tasted more of herbs with a gentle touch of garlic, while the avocado added substance and body to the vinaigrette.
I had decided to order the calamari steak because it is such an unfashionable dish – a relic of the 1950s when you needed to disguise squid to sell it. I selected a sauce with tomato, green onion, garlic, basil and tequila, and once again the liquor was not prominent – it lent a slight smoky sweetness to the tangy mix of flavors. The steak itself had been dusted with seasoned flour and was quite tender, and I’d order it again.
The huge trout was stuffed with crabmeat, shrimp, mushrooms, and onions and was topped with a mild cognac and garlic sauce – not a traditional preparation anywhere in Mexico, but an excellent one. Both plates were completed with a vegetable medley that included squash, corn, carrots, and roasted bell peppers, and Mexican rice topped with a neutral cheese. The portions were massive and the price was right – at $14 and $16 respectively for entrees, dinner here doesn’t break the bank.
Casablanca Restaurant is surprisingly little-known – some people pass by for years and never suspect that a film history wonderland is behind that bland exterior. It is, and so is a restaurant that could be popular even without the attraction of unique d/cor.
Free parking in adjacent lot. Open daily at 11 a.m.; close 10 p.m. Mo-Thu, 11 p.m. Fr-Sa. Live music, children’s menu, wheelchair access good, full bar.
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Casablanca 220 Lincoln Blvd., Venice