Bohemian Rhapsody

Hanging Out At The Casbah Tea House Is Good For Your Health.

By Rebecca Cook

You're sick of hanging around and you'd like to travel/ Tired of travel, you want to settle down/ I guess they can't revoke your soul for trying/ Get out of the door--light out and look around.

"Truckin'," by The Grateful Dead

WHILE MANY DEVOTED Deadheads found an intellectually esoteric significance in the band's every lyrical turn of phrase and resonant guitar chord, Carol Ann Krueger took the lines to heart and converted them into action.

Along with husband Wild Bill From Over the Hill, Krueger not only joined the thousands of Deadheads who flocked to each and every Grateful Dead concert, she actually devised a way to make a living while doing so.

Chow Investing in a food-service travel trailer, Krueger and Wild Bill fed the hungry masses gathered at venues around the country. The fare was all vegetarian and conspicuously healthy, unlike the usual concession food menu consisting of nachos, hot dogs and hamburgers. No estimates are available on how many Deadheads were served over the years, but the venture was profitable enough to net tens of thousands of dollars each year it was in operation.

The death of Jerry Garcia in 1995 brought an abrupt end to the enterprise, and Krueger and Wild Bill began looking for a comfortable place to park their trailer for awhile and put down some roots. Who could be all that surprised that Tucson, and in particular Fourth Avenue, won the prize?

The trailer has been converted into the kitchen for The Casbah Tea House, Krueger and Wild Bill's latest endeavor along with the adjoining Creative Spirit Gallery. (In addition to her culinary skills, Krueger apparently also has some talent as a jeweler. Many of her necklaces, rings, earrings and accessories, as well as a selection of Eastern-style clothing, are sold at the next-door gallery.)

Still imparting a hint of impermanence, The Casbah Tea House resembles a huge tent, decidedly Bedouin in style and design. Although tableside service is sometimes available, most customers prefer to order at the counter and then wander off to one of the garden patio seatings, a selection process that isn't quite as simple as it sounds. True, there are a few traditional picnic tables; but much more intriguing are the large pillows and brass, spheroid tables hovering close to the ground and surrounded by chairs with tiny four-inch legs. Depending on your mood (or your ability to get up and down with relative ease), you make your choice.

The set-up and design of the Casbah is important to note because--just like the band that inspired the creation of this eatery--it's not a restaurant of universal appeal. For example, while my mother might actually enjoy the food here, she would be so enormously uncomfortable with the surroundings (both physically and socially), that it would be impossible for her to fully relish her meal. The Casbah is part and parcel of the Fourth Avenue Street scene: funky, slightly unpredictable and utterly singular. In café parlance, it won't be everyone's cup of tea.

My bottom line, however, is the food. As much as I eschew an exclusive diet of things that are good for me, I have to admit that the Casbah does an outstanding job of producing wholesome, organic food that's as delicious as it is nutritionally sound. In my experience, this is an extremely rare occurrence.

Most spectacular, perhaps, are the Casbah's salads, which are all made with fresh, organic ingredients and come bursting with the flavors of the backyard garden. Every ingredient tastes like its supposed to--not even close to that non-descript, crunchy impostor you frequently end up with when you buy your produce at a chain supermarket. The baby greens are delicate and provide the requisite balance between sweet and bitter; the tomatoes are deeply red, ripe and luscious; the sprouts fresh and slightly crunchy; and the red onion mild enough to be enjoyed without overpowering your dinner companion later in the evening.

The organic potato salad is magnificent: tender chunks of new potato tossed in a barely detectable dressing of yogurt, dill and fresh ground pepper. The salad is a good example of the Casbah's ability to get away with making dishes comprised of few ingredients; the items they do include are so full of flavor that additional doctoring would be superfluous. Embellishments aren't needed when the core constituents are so delicious.

The Middle East Plate is a fine way to sample a variety of Casbah specialties. Composed of organic hummus, tabouli, dolmas and a lovely salad with feta cheese and Greek olives, this is a fun dish to work your way around. The chick pea purée manages a satisfying balance between sesame, lemon and garlic, and the tabouli contains a delightful infusion of mint, parsley and garlic. The dolmas are tender, rice-filled treats with a subtly briny piquancy that lent itself well to a quick dip through the hummus. I was totally enamored.

The Casbah cheese "steak" (a vegetarian version, of course) was slightly less successful, tending towards the bland. Seitan (a protein-rich food made of wheat gluten and possessing such a meaty, chewy texture that it's often referred to as "wheat meat") is marinated and placed on a whole wheat bun along with some sliced tomato, onion, jack cheese and lettuce. The marinade perhaps needed a little more flavor to make up for the seitan, which is essentially devoid of taste.

The Casbah's menu contains several more sandwich items, including meatless burgers and hot dogs, as well as soups, salads, stews, bean dishes and bagels with a wide variety of organic toppings.

Not surprisingly, the Casbah offers an assortment of teas, ranging from those meant to please your taste buds to those intended to cure what ails you. Black teas, green teas, herbal teas and blends and herbal medicinals are all available. The next time you're down with a case of the sniffles, you might try Mama Bear's Cold Care and a cup of homemade soup.

Most impressive at the Casbah are the homemade desserts, many of them vegan (no eggs or dairy products). With trepidation we sampled the carrot cake and a chocolate espresso cake (being of the mind that dessert should always be exempt from all health considerations) and were rewarded with a sweet intensity that rivaled the competition at the finest butter-and-cream patisseries.

Nightly entertainment, ranging from poetry readings and live music to Friday-night belly dancing, are also a prime element of Casbah experience.

The Dead tours may have ended, but a remnant of that bygone era persists here at home, in a little space on Fourth Avenue. Krueger and Wild Bill might say, "What a long, strange trip it's been."

The Casbah Tea House. 628 N. Fourth Ave. 740-0393. Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday and noon to 6 p.m. on Sunday. Casbah will be closed through July 7, 1998. No liquor. V, MC, checks. Menu items: $1-$6.75. TW

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