At Argan, build-your-own sandwiches, Moroccan style


It's a little hard to find and you have to have good knees to get down the steps below street level, but the aroma that greets you at Argan Moroccan Cuisine on 17th and Sansom is worth the effort. Owner Mounir Draissi showcases the flavors of his native country and the healthy Mediterranean flavors of the region.

Argan is named after an unusual tree that grows only in southern Morocco. Draissi chose that name because he wanted his restaurant to be unique. One day he hopes to serve the special, but expensive, oil that comes from the Argan tree.

For now, he's starting slow with a menu that offers seven sandwiches ($6.99) and two salads ($7.99). Personally, I'd skip the salads - there's a Nicoise and a Beet with goat cheese. No doubt they both are delicious, but when in Morocco . . .

You can't go wrong with these Middle Eastern meats and vegetable spread pockets.

Argan sandwiches are made primarily from Mediterranean ingredients and the concept is Build-Your-Own Sandwich. Each includes a meat or a vegetarian spread with three choices of vegetable toppings and mixed greens.

But, before we get to the stuffings, let's talk about the bread.

Ah, the bread. This isn't pita, nor is it truly a flatbread even though Draissi calls it a Moroccan flatbread. These rounds are like a cross between sourdough and corn bread. They are made in-house and get their fluffy body from three risings of the yeast. The semolina adds a crunchy texture as well as fiber for those counting daily nutrients.

Unlike pita pockets that make for difficult eating because they usually fall apart when stuffed, these bread rounds are perfect containers for the fillings. Alternatively, they rip into perfect dippers for the side spreads.

Draissi uses only free range Halal meats, which means the animal is slaughtered and processed in accordance with Islamic law. Like Kosher meats, this method is considered to produce a product that is tender and fresh-tasting.

My favorite was the Slow Cooked Lamb. This was really, really tender lamb that carried the subtle blend of seasonings. It paired naturally with the white bean option add-on. And, the bread just soaked up the juices so that each bite was the perfect mix of juice, meat and seasonings.

Also high with the taster-raters were the Moroccan Meatballs. It might have looked Italian, but the seasonings would have you in Casablanca. It paired well with the addition of roasted peppers and onion.

If you are feeling adventurous, try the Merguez. This is a lamb-and-beef sausage that generally is seasoned with sumac and pepper to give it a bright red color. One of my tasters was put off by the texture. The links certainly aren't quite compatible with the concept of building a sandwich because you can't get a bite of sausage uniformly with the add-on garnishes. The potatoes turned out to be a poor choice here because they were too large and just rolled around. Although, they were nicely cooked and seasoned.

I really enjoyed the fact that carnivores and vegetarians can happily coexist here. There are sandwiches or side dips ($3.99 per container) that can be shared.

The Hummus was topped with a sluice of extra virgin olive oil and got a nice kick from some cayenne pepper on top. There was just the right balance between the pureed chickpeas, tahini and lemon juice.

I've never been a Baba Ghanouj fan as the eggplant often has a slimy mouth feel. This was rich and creamy, but had enough texture to keep the eggplant from the dreaded slime effect. This would be a hearty option for a vegetarian sandwich, but I really enjoyed it as a dip as it also was garnished with the olive oil and pepper.

The Zaaluk blend of roasted eggplant puree and extra virgin olive oil received raves from my tasters. In fact, some pronounced it as good, if perhaps not better than the Zaaluk offered by a high-end Middle Eastern restaurant here in town.

My favorite, particularly as a dip, was the Shekshuka. It's a blend of diced peppers, roasted tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil and a hit of parsley, cilantro and roasted garlic. Even better - the next morning I poached an egg for breakfast and served it on top of the Shekshuka vegetables. Great way to start the day.

Whether you opt for the meat or vegetarian option to begin your sandwich, you choose from eight vegetables to top your sandwich. It's fun to mix and match items such as green beans, carrots, tomatoes, and potatoes.

Eventually you'll come back enough to discover your favorite combo.

Argan is a great option for families with youngsters. It has a welcoming neighborhood feel, and the bright orange walls with touches of Moroccan scenes entertain the eye.

The one thing I found really lacking was the absence of hot beverages.

After a satisfying sandwich the perfect ending would have been a mint tea or some style of Turkish coffee. It would also be an excuse to linger.

Maybe a little Moroccan sweet would be nice, too.

Draissi is planning to expand the menu to include authentic Tagines, a Moroccan meat stew. If it is as good as the sandwiches, I can't wait. *