UPDATE 12-13-2019: A memorial will be held at Medina on December 18, at 4 pm. According to Susan Swarner Benoikken, it will be an informal event in which attendees can come and go.
A beloved restaurateur has passed away: Sam Benoikken, owner of Moroccan restaurant Medina Oven in Dallas' Victory Park, died early in the morning unexpectedly on November 29; he was 61.
Benoikken was found on the couch by his wife Susan Swarner Benoikken, who posted the news of his death on his Facebook page.
Benoikken was a graduate of the University of North Texas with a BS in Hotel/Restaurant + Business Administration who went on to work at a number of restaurants including the Mansion on Turtle Creek before co-founding Medina Oven with his then-partner Yaser Khalaf.
A native of Morocco, Benoikken was a consummate host and avid champion of all things Moroccan, invariably ending his social media posts with a string of Morocco-themed hashtags.
Medina Oven was his first foray into ownership, which he opened in partnership with Khalaf. The restaurant represents a beautiful oasis in Victory Park, with its intimate atmosphere, stunning jewel-tone tapestries, plush pillows, and gilded touches.
The food earns uniformly high ratings from critics and diners alike, notching nearly 5 stars on public rating sites such as Yelp, for dishes such as the mixed sampler featuring four spreads — hummus, smoked eggplant, roast pepper-tomato, and harissa — with fresh oven baked pita bread. The restaurant helped introduce Moroccan dishes such as tagines and chicken with Moroccan olives and preserved lemon-saffron sauce to Dallas diners.
"Sam loved the restaurant business," Khalaf says. "He was a great passionate person who really paid his dues, working in every position until he mastered it. He was passionate about it, and that passion was maybe part of what killed him. He cared so much about the quality of what he did, and served as a father figure and coach to a lot of his staff."
Khalaf was a lifelong entrepreneur who had already opened L.A. Gourmet Pizza on McKinney Avenue when he and Benoikken first met. The two joined forces to open Medina in late 2007.
"I had been approached to open another pizzeria there, but Sam hijacked the menu from pizza to Moroccan," Khalaf says. "He had so much much knowledge and passion, the menu, the beautiful atmosphere, those were all his designs. I'm not Moroccan, but my family has history with the Moroccan government, and I was happy to learn something new. But that's why we have pizza at Medina, it was originally supposed to be a pizza place."
They went on to open Baboush in the West Village, but eventually parted ways, with Sam keeping Medina and Yaser keeping Baboush.
"We had different mindsets — I'm more of a businessman who likes restaurants, and he was more of a food guy," Khalaf says. "But I loved Sam, and I love Medina, and wish we could have done more things together."
Benoikken's wife Susan is a lifelong nurse who has been dealing with some health issues. As Sam didn't leave a will or life insurance, several of her friends have set up a Go Fund Me to help her over the hump while she sorts things out, and are asking for donations in lieu of flowers.
She and the Medina Oven staff are hoping to keep things humming, and Khalaf has stepped in to help in the interim.
Services will take place in Morocco where Benoikken's body has been sent, but a memorial service may be planned for later in Dallas.