Moraccan Pursues the American Dream in Oakland

Mohcine Eljoufri is the owner of Beta Bites, a Moroccan restaurant in Oakland. His food combines American staples with Moraccan flavors.

Mohcine Eljoufri is the owner of Beta Bites, a Moroccan restaurant in Oakland. His food combines American staples with Moraccan flavors.

words: Leonardo Sanchez

photos: Lauren Zawatski

As soon as you enter Beta Bites, you can tell that is not a typical American restaurant. Located on South Bouquet Street, in Oakland, the place has a unique aroma of spices and meat, and the Moroccan music mixes with the loud sounds that come from the grill. Mohcine Eljoufri, born in Tangiers, is the owner of the restaurant.

With a smile on his face, he greets his customers while coming and going from the kitchen. The business is small, but Mohcine has a lot of work to do. In addition to managing the place, the Moroccan may also cook and serve the customers every now and then. Delivering the carefully seasoned dishes all across Pittsburgh, however, is his main task.

“Even when I’m home, I keep my phone close, so I can see how things are going at the restaurant,” Mohcine says while getting into his car. “If they are busy and my help is needed, I go there.”

By the look of the vehicle, one can tell Mohcine spends a great amount of time in there. Cups of coffee and bottles of water are strategically positioned near the driver’s hands, while a stack of papers — each one containing a different delivery address — stays on the car’s dashboard.

Beta Bites is located on S. Bouquet Street.

Beta Bites is located on S. Bouquet Street.

Beta Bites serves a diverse clientele — not surprising, given that Oakland is one of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods. It’s a mecca for international students and faculty, according to Vibrant Pittsburgh.

“In business, the first thing that we learn is location. That’s the reason why I was waiting for the right spot, and then I found this one,” Mohcine says.

Located among several old, unkempt houses belonging to students, Beta Bites relies on Oakland’s unique population to keep the business growing. The neighborhood’s rich academic life was also something Mohcine considered when choosing the restaurant’s address.

“I opened the restaurant in this neighborhood because there is a lot of students, and they are always open-minded, willing to try new things,” Mohcine says.

Mohcine was once a Pittsburgh student himself. He arrived in the city in 2000, when he was only 21, to pursue a college degree. Due to financial difficulties, however, he was never able to finish the course.

Getting people interested in different dishes is a key point for the business owner, whose idea has always been introducing Moroccan flavors to American food. Beta Bites’ menu, therefore, is rich and creative, blending ingredients that normally wouldn’t be found together.

Customers eating there can find plates composed of both juicy lamb chops and American-favorite macaroni and cheese. The pizzas created by Mohcine, on the other hand, often have Arabic ingredients, such as kafta and pita bread. Everything carries a heavy, exotic Moroccan-style seasoning.

“Moroccan is a fine cuisine, but I can’t afford to have a posh restaurant,” Mohcine says. “So, I’m trying to introduce it to American flavors in an inexpensive way, so everyone can afford it, like college kids.”

In order to fulfill his dream of living in the United States, Mohcine had to leave his family behind in Tangiers. He nourished the ambition of living abroad throughout his adolescence, and the first time he came to the United States, at 13, he “was fascinated.”

A Beta Bites employee prepares a customer’s order in the restaurant’s small cooking space.

A Beta Bites employee prepares a customer’s order in the restaurant’s small cooking space.

Mohcine grew up under the influence of the director of the American English Center in Tangiers. A friend of the family, the educator taught him many of the things he had to know before coming to the United States. After 16 years far from home, he regrets nothing.

“We make choices. Of course, the first five, six years were really hard,” Mohcine says. “You feel homesick; it’s a different lifestyle, but new experiences keep things interesting.”

Mohcine doesn’t think of going back to Morocco anytime soon. Pittsburgh is now his home, after all. It’s also the place where he met his wife, Nicole Eljoufri, with whom he has three sons, aged one, six and nine.

Nicole is American, born to a Jewish father and a Catholic mother — a completely different background to Mohcine, who was raised as a Muslim.

“Our cultural differences come up in unexpected situations,” she says.

However, love conquers all. The couple has been together since 2003, after they met at an Arabic restaurant where they both worked. After they married, she went on to become a teacher, while Mohcine pursued his dream of becoming a business owner. After many attempts, Beta Bites opened.

For Nicole, her husband’s great amount of work is a difficult thing to cope with.

“It’s very hard. Many days I really wish that my husband could just be ‘normal,’ but I know that is not his personality; he is an entrepreneur,” she says. “With three young kids, the situation is really hard. We all miss him incredibly, and the time he is able to spend with us is very special.”

Even though Mohcine doesn’t get a lot of free time, he already thinks of his next projects. The idea of founding an organization destined to provide support for Moroccans living in the city is a recurring topic.

“I have already thought about it with some friends, but we need people who have time and right now everybody is trying to build,” he says. “We’re mostly the first generation here in Pittsburgh, but hopefully in the future, we’ll be able to do it.”

Pennsylvania currently has about 3,000 immigrants from Morocco, according to a U.S. Census Bureau pool from 2014. Although a small number, “it’s a growing community,” Mohcine says. For now, Moroccans can keep their culture alive by meeting at the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, located in North Oakland, like Mohcine does.

While Mohcine hasn’t fulfilled his dream of opening an organization aimed at helping his countrymen, places like Beta Bites are responsible for preserving the culture of hundreds of Moroccans now living in Pittsburgh. Mohcine Eljoufri’s liveliness, on the other hand, not only represents the diversity of Oakland, but also makes many foreigners feel like they are home.