By Megan O’Brien
Sandwiches are always better when someone else makes them: who is cutting, building and flavoring your sandwiches? In general, the art of making a fulfilling sandwich is a thing that is sometimes lost here in Seoul. However, there is a little spot perfectly located right smack on the HBC main drag that has been able to fill the void of a decent sandwich shop. Casablanca owned and operated by Wahid and his brother, Karim. Wahid and his brother hail from Morocco and recently, after observing the overwhelming 5pm rush of sandwich pursuers as the shop doors opened, I was able to ask Wahid a few questions which he coolly answered while skillfully multitasking through orders and payments and sandwich preparations with a pleasant smile on his face.
The first question I asked was directed toward his present endeavor in the restaurant business. Mainly, how did he get into food? It came out that food was not Wahid’s first course of study or passion. He had in fact started out studying French law in university, but he developed an earlier ambition while working in his father’s cafe and grill in Rabat, Morocco. At some point he decided that he would rather attend culinary school and develop his skills of, “Fresh Moroccan food with no fuss.”
What brought him to Seoul? As it turns out, he has been here for 6 years now originally coming here to study Korean at Hongik University. He explained through his winning smile that he had studied Japanese back home and was looking to go abroad. His choices were either China or South Korea as he expressed he is really satisfied with his choice of coming here and particularly to a neighborhood like Haebangchon,
“There are so many interesting people around here, and they like my food. So how could I go wrong?”
His brother Karim joined him a few months ago to help assist with the small bustling box in the wall and when the door opens the scents of cumin and cinnamon are present and inviting. The two brothers do not exactly fit into the Moroccan stereotyped community that is a big part of neighboring Itaweon. Wahid explained to me that he is Berber, which means a different language and cultural differences than many other people from Morocco. The number of people in Seoul who speak the Berber language can be counted on hand.
When I asked him about how he got the concept for his shop he explained that he was interested in creating a restaurant in between fast food and fine dining. It could be argued that Casablanca occupies this space quite successfully. The restaurant itself is nicely decorated, but hardly intimidating and the process of ordering food is relaxed, yet quick and the food itself is artistically made with well prepared ingredients without too much of a wait. I was so much enjoying my Chicken Sandwich, Lintel Soup and Moroccan Carrot Salad, that I figured it better to get out my list of questions before I get carried away in eating.
3WM: What about the process for opening the shop?
Wahid: It’s a funny thing because I had been looking for an empty place and no place was empty.
He explained it took a whole year to just find a spot. He likened the process as “always running.” He would find a place and the price would go up the next time he inquired about it. Eventually when he found the place he is at right now, it took an additional 6 months to get the shop up and running.
3WM: Why HBC?
Wahid: I honestly have not had many options. I was looking for a place in Itaewon or Kyungidan which were too expensive. And when I was just about to lose hope I entered a real estate agency in HBC where the agent proposed that I take his own place over! A few months later Casablanca was born. Let’s say it’s a no choice that turned into very good luck. If you ask me if I am happy with the location? Totally!
3WM: Is it hard to find the necessary ingredients for this unique food?
Wahid: I don’t think it’s hard to find the right ingredients. The only one we bring from Morocco is ‘Ras el hanout’ (Moroccan spice mix) I have tried to make mine here but it just doesn’t taste the same so I think it’s really worth the shipment.
3WM: Who makes up the regular customers base? Are they primarily expats?
Wahid: Yes, most of our patrons are expats, but recently we have seen a good rise in Korean customers, too. The Korean kids seem to really like our food.
3WM: Do you see yourself opening a similar place elsewhere in the world?
Wahid: Somewhere in the world is too big for me, but somewhere in Seoul would be more probable. But for the moment I am just focusing on improving what we are doing in our one and only location.
The answer to this last question is a fantastic example of the Wahid’s humble demeanor. His shop is kind of a big deal. The food is delicious, there is an otherwise untapped market for quality sandwiches and yet, a very special aspect of the shop is that he is very pleasant to chat with. So, if you find yourself munching on one of his sandwiches, take a moment to chat with him a bit. Your dining experience with be extra satisfying and you can participate in what is the real HBC community. And BTW with the prices of everything seem to be going up in the area, Casablanca offers an exotic taste at a low price.
End Note: Casablanca does not take any cash-key or credit cards: Cash Only.
Hours are 5pm till about 10:30. Off day on Monday.
Casablanca is on the main drag of HBC. Subway Line 6, Noksapyeong Station. Exit 2 walk along the army base bare left at the Kimchi pots and half-way up the hill with Namsan Tower as the pole star to guide you.
Megan is from San Diego, CA. She’s interested in things involving cycling, food politics, coffee, taking photos, whiskey, music that incorporates a peddle steel, overalls and cut-offs. When she’s not riding a bike around Seoul or taking photos, she teaches. Her blog is: http://www.thetoohugeworld.wordpress.com.