By Mary Bernard
Rabat – Three generations of two families—one Vietnamese, the other Moroccan—have been in business together for nearly 70 years to keep Rabat’s first Asian restaurant open to the public. The longevity of Le Mandarin has made it a landmark in the L’Ocean neighborhood.
But Tuan Le, 41, the grandson of the restaurant’s founder, will be the last member of his family to own and run the establishment.
On February 5, Le sold the restaurant to Rhizlan El-Oufir, a Moroccan woman whose grandfather originally rented the establishment to Le’s grandfather, Xa Nguyen, in the early 1950s.
The El-Oufir family gathers around the same table as the Nguyen family did in the 1970s to celebrate Dinia’s birthday. From left, Mounira Dinia (El-Oufir’s mother), Abdellah El-Oufir (her 5-year-old son), Rhizlan El-Oufir, Redouan Hakim (El-Oufir’s husband) and Aziz El-Oufir (El-Oufir’s brother). Photo credit: Alexis Broadnax.
Nguyen, a sailor from Vietnam, came to Morocco in the 1930s. Vietnam, at the time, was a French territory within Indochina, and Morocco was a territory in French West Africa. Unlike the other places he visited, Nguyen did not leave.
‘It’s a familial affair’
Why Nguyen settled in Morocco remains a mystery to his family. But the significance of the decision is not lost on them.
“He opened, from nothing, a restaurant,” Le said. “He made a living in Morocco which was really hard at that time, much better than he could have done in Vietnam.”
Rhizlan El-Oufir, 38, stands outside the ornate entry to the restaurant. El-Oufir officially took over as the owner early February. Photo credit: Alexis Broadnax.
El Oufir says she wants to maintain the historic eatery’s legacy, partly out of sentimental attachment.
“It’s a familial affair,” El-Oufir, 38, said in French. “My grandfather rented to his grandfather, then my father rented to his father.”
The restaurant offers Asian food, with a specialty in Vietnamese, to a range of customers, from regulars who have come to the restaurant weekly for decades to foreigners picking up fried rice to-go.
During the day, passersby might not notice the red barricade rolled down to block the entrance, with chipping yellow paint denoting the hours of service. At night, the propped-open ornate door is the only sign of life, the inside’s faded decor revealing years of gentle use.
Colored lanterns decorated the establishment while Le was the owner. El-Oufir plans to modernize the establishment while keeping its character, which could involve a change in decor. Photo credit: Alexis Broadnax.
Opened in 1952, Le Mandarin claims to be the first Asian restaurant in Rabat. In the country, an Asian eatery in Casablanca purportedly preceded Le Mandarin by a few years.
Ex-owner Tuan Le was born in Vietnam but grew up in Morocco when his parents returned to run Le Mandarin. He went to college in Paris and only came back to Rabat a decade ago to relieve his aging parents of the restaurant.
Divorced with no children, he had no particular reason to stay or go, but he never intended to remain in Rabat for long. Le’s happiness to be leaving the restaurant behind is only matched by El-Oufir’s excitement to be taking over.
El-Oufir, who previously owned a spa and massage parlor, is particularly motivated to succeed because of her family’s legacy.
“Here, [customers] can feel that the food is old-fashioned,” El-Oufir said. “I want it to stay that way.”
Over the years, the food has changed with the neighborhood around it. L’Ocean became a popular, middle-class district around the time that Nguyen began making the egg rolls with Moroccan wheat paper rather than Vietnamese rice paper, Le said.
“Customers like something that looks like their [Moroccan] food,” Le said. “That’s why it’s not really authentic.”
The beef pho for MAD 45 is a traditional soup available at the restaurant. Photo credit: Alexis Broadnax.
Besides rice paper, the lack of fresh herbs and dog meat, a Vietnamese favorite, hinders the authenticity of the food. Ranging from MAD 65 to 80 for an entree, a meal comes to about the same price as other mid-tier restaurants in the area.
The menu includes a variety of Asian foods including soups, seafood, noodle dishes, and woks. Jasmine tea is the drink most commonly served with the food, but cocktails, beer, and wine are available as well.
El-Oufir hopes to modernize Le Mandarin while keeping its familiar and historic character. The same chef will remain in the kitchen to maintain similar flavors while expanding the menu, and El-Oufir also plans to hire a sushi chef in response to customer demands.
Le Mandarin’s manager, Soufiane El-Bouni, 42, began working a month ago to assist Le and El-Oufir with the transition. According to him, the change in ownership will have no impact on the future of the restaurant and its staff.
Samira Abdel-Shaeed, 68, and her husband, Boukhari Boujame, 73, have lunch one Sunday afternoon at Le Mandarin. Photo credit: Alexis Broadnax.
As for Le, his future in the restaurant business is unclear.
For the time being, he plans to return to Paris where his parents live. Eventually, he wants to go back to Vietnam and visit his cousin’s new restaurant.
“I have a part of Moroccan culture, but I feel Vietnamese, even if I never lived in Vietnam,” he said. “It’s time to go back.”
Mary Bernard is spending several months in Morocco on an SIT study abroad program, and produced this story in association with Round Earth Media.