If you’re in the mood to experience an exotic spice rack of Mediterranean flavors without having to break out your passport, give the Oasis restaurant in San Luis Obispo a try.
Chef Karim BenBrahim discovered this area the way many do, as a student at Cal Poly. In 1994, he and his family launched the Higuera Street restaurant, unveiling a rich array of dishes from throughout the Mediterranean, especially from BenBrahim’s native Morocco.
When Oasis first opened, its luxurious interior showcased an opulent slice of Moroccan culture, a side more often seen by tourists than the average resident.
In 2009, BenBrahim decided to tone that down a bit to reflect “what regular restaurants look like in Morocco, a simple place where you go to enjoy good company and good food.”
The restaurant is no less visually intriguing now. With touches such as colorful diamond-tiled tables, rich tapestries and intricate lighting fixtures, it still fully creates a Moroccan ambiance.
BenBrahim opted to remodel the Oasis menu as well, focusing on “a smaller selection for the restaurant, but still keeping everything available for the catering menu.” That allows him “to have daily specials every night, like fresh fish in a saffron sauce,” and also to be able to make slight seasonal adjustments, especially with things such as the housemade vegan soups.
However, even with the slimmer menu, you’ll still have an abundance of riches to choose from at Oasis.
Appetizers and small plates include dolmas (grape leaves stuffed with seasoned rice), tzat-ziki (a refreshing Greek yogurt and cucumber dip), and deep-fried shrimp served with harissa (a spicy tomato-based sauce that’s a staple of northern African cuisines).
Larger menu items and full entrées run the gamut from a roasted eggplant sandwich, to a Mediterranean potato salad with tuna and kalamata olives, to a charbroiled beef rib loin.
Other standouts on the menu are the chicken shawarma — thinly sliced chicken marinated in a bright mixture of spices and served on pita bread with housemade garlic sauce; the couscous Royale — an intriguing blend of vegetables such as cabbage and sweet potato, mixed with raisins and garbanzo beans, and served atop a bed of couscous (a small wheat pasta); and the melt-in-your-mouth beef and potato tagine — a classic Moroccan dish made with braised beef, potatoes, olives and a lemon-saffron sauce.
BenBrahim prides himself that virtually “every item tastes totally different than any other, and that we do things the hard way to make things more authentic.”
To get the rich flavors typical of these cuisines, some things are done in advance, such as slow-braising the meats, but “everything is made from scratch, and even the soups are made to order.”
Because of this approach, some dishes do take longer than others, so if you have a time crunch, just let your server know; orders like the lamb gyro sandwich or the Mediterranean salad with artichokes and feta cheese are faster to prepare.
Whatever you choose, BenBrahim relishes the opportunity to give people a glimpse into his culture via food.
“I really want people to have the chance to learn about Moroccan and Mediterranean cuisine,” he said. “Come in, sit down and have a nice relaxing meal with some tea.”
Indeed, a trip to Oasis wouldn’t be complete without an order of that beverage.
The piping hot, slightly sweetened, house-blended tea is served exactly as you would get it in Morocco — poured steaming out of a silver tea pot into small intricately adorned glasses.
Sit back, take a few sips, and you might almost forget you’re on Higuera Street.