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Over the past several weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of community and the ways in which it’s being tested at this unprecedented moment in history. How are temporary distancing measures permanently impacting our relationships? How has our sense of belonging evolved? What bonds are being formed—and broken—during the most significant civil-rights movement of many of our lifetimes? Who do we care about, why, and how do we show it?
It was against the backdrop of those questions that I happened to meet Touhami ElFahdi. The native Moroccan traveled the world before settling down in Denver, at the behest of his two children, to open Café Miriam in City Park West, which serves French-inspired coffeehouse fare by day and dishes from his homeland at night. As a citizen of the globe, a devoted father, and the owner of what has become a beloved neighborhood hangout, ElFahdi struck me as a walking synthesis of the myriad definitions of “community.”
ElFahdi arrived in Denver as an undergraduate, going on to obtain a Master’s degree at the Colorado School of Mines which led to a career in aerospace. At the NASA Civil Service in Houston, he headed a team that built a telemetry system for space stations and even trained astronauts in its use. That would be accomplishment enough for most, but ElFahdi wasn’t content; he rode the dot-com wave while it lasted and wound up in risk management for oil and gas companies before returning to the Mile High City and starting a consultancy that took him back and forth to Denmark, the Netherlands, Austria, Bahrain, and Kuwait—until, finally, he says, “I was done. I wanted to be home with my kids.”
Though ElFahdi had no experience in the hospitality business, he acknowledges, “hosting people was really natural to us.” So it was that he opened Café Miriam in 2017 with the support of his son Jamil and eponymous daughter Miriam. (Both are now away at college, but “I don’t do anything without consulting them, because I want them to have a sense of ownership,” he says.) Starting with a small menu of coffee, tea, and pastries, “we evolved to wonderful French crêpes and sandwiches, and for the past three months, we’ve been offering what we consider delicious Moroccan cuisine.”
Ask ElFahdi to define the food he grew up with, and you’ll get a description that’s worth considering within the context of community. “It’s really a fusion of different cultures,” he says, noting its sub-Saharan African, Turkish, Arabic, and more recent European influences as well as its robust system of agriculture, modernized through “a lot of cooperation between Morocco and Israel.” A typical meal is centered around meat, “be that chicken or beef or lamb or fish, depending on what area you’re in. But you will always have at least one salad to go with it. Moroccans like to decorate their tables, so you’ll see small dishes with different types of vegetables—almost like tapas.” Aromatics are key, he adds: “There’s a lot of saffron, a lot of cumin, a lot of turmeric, a lot of ginger; certainly fresh garlic, cilantro, parsley, olive oil, and olives are a must in almost every dish.”
All that’s abundantly clear in the specialties ElFahdi prepares with his small crew at Café Miriam, including fabulously tangy carrots with shermoula, ultra-garlicky green beans, and zaalouk, a warm, tart eggplant salad similar to baba ghanoush. Along with hummus, pita, and fluffy seasoned rice, these salads might accompany any of four tagines, which ElFahdi calls “as Moroccan as cherry pie is to America”: fragrant, slow-cooked stews of beef or chicken, laced with fruit such as prunes and pickled lemons as well as sweet spices like cardamom and anise. Another Miriam favorite is the grilled, cinnamon-scented Kefta Kebab Maximino Hidalgo, named for the late father of a café regular from Colombia who loved the dish. “We’ve developed a lot of relationships with people throughout the neighborhood, to the point that we’ve become really good friends,” ElFahdi says.
Which brings him to the most important, albeit abstract, component of Moroccan cuisine: “It’s about the hospitality that goes with it,” he asserts. “If you ever spend some time in Morocco, and you have a meal at somebody’s house, they’re only happy when you eat a lot—the more you eat, the happier they are. So I think it’s about sharing, it’s about kindness, it’s about generosity.”
A scroll down Café Miriam’s Facebook page shows just how much ElFahdi means that. Most of the photos are of not food, but rather of the café’s customers, often families. There are posts of local kids in costumes on Halloween and gathered around Santa Claus on his annual visit to the shop. There are references to other local businesses ElFahdi supports, like the Women’s Bean Project, as well as to the free meals he offered federal employees during the 2018 furlough and the ones he cooks now for frontline workers battling COVID-19. On my most recent visit, he proudly mentioned a fundraiser he held for a neighbor battling cancer. “That’s what it’s about,” he said before handing me my takeout order. Then, spotting a teenager he knew out the window, he said goodbye, explaining that he was going to go offer her a job. As I got into my car parked across the street, I could hear a shriek of joy.
Café Miriam is open Thursday–Sunday, 8 a.m.–2 p.m., and Wednesday–Sunday, 4:30–9 p.m.; 2217 E. 21st Ave.