Chez Hansi owners, Hans and Samira Eggstein. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Hans Eggstein was feeling out of place. As “the only white boy at the wedding,” as he described it, the restaurant manager was nervous.

He wondered if he’d made a mistake taking time off from his job at Philly’s famed Le Bec-Fin to accept a waiter’s invitation to a wedding in Casablanca, especially after a back-firing car sent him diving to the ground in a crowded bazaar shortly following his arrival. Then he saw Samira Mountassir.

“She was so beautiful in her kaftan and jewelry,” Eggstein told Billy Penn. “She looked like a princess.”

Mountassir (now Eggstein) recalls being similarly struck. “I felt comfortable right away around him,” she said of their brief interaction at the wedding. “I even held his hand on our first date,” in defiance of her conservative upbringing.

Fast forward 17 years, and the duo are now proprietors of Chez Hansi on the 1600 block of South Street. 

The spot underwent a few changes since opening last April before settling into a quaint BYO with 24 seats across a main floor and lower level. Dishes include spaetzle-and-mushroom covered schnitzels, fragrant couscous-based tajines, and plenty of pastries, both savory and sweet. 

It’s a harmonious blend of the couple’s respective European and North African backgrounds, and a realization of a plan set in motion during their earliest conversations.

Chez Hansi’s vegetable tajine, a bright rendition of the classic Moroccan dish. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Obstacles along the way 

Wanting to respect local customs, then 55-year-old Hans approached Samira’s family the day after the wedding in Morocco to seek out her mother’s approval for a date, which was promptly denied. Undeterred, he returned two days later, and then two days after that. The third time proved to be the charm.

Together at last, the two discovered a language barrier, with Samira speaking only a little English and Hans even less French.

“I remember we were talking about preparing couscous, and I was [struggling] to explain,” Samira said of their first date. “But we got there, no problem. We made it.”

They quickly bonded over their shared culinary interests and backgrounds. Samira, who had honed her baking skills in her uncle’s bakery, had grown up with a passion for cooking; experimenting in the kitchen from an early age and by high school regularly preparing meals for her mother and five siblings. She had settled on an accounting diploma after narrowly missing the application deadline for restaurant school. 

Hans had grown up in his parents’ traditional German pub in Stuttgart, where he later went to restaurant school before moving to Philadelphia in 1974 and eventually becoming a manager at Georges Perrier’s Center City fine dining gem.

Over the next few days, Samira guided Hans across Casablanca, exploring the cafes and restaurants on Boulevard d’Anfa and the local bazaars. They served as inspiration for the pair’s future cafe, which even by that early point had become a shared assumption.

With his time in Casablanca coming to an end and the two realizing how difficult it was to say goodbye – “I think I cried in the airport,” said Samira – they made plans for Hans to return several times over the next few months. 

Chez Hansi’s crème brûlée. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

A little over a year after first meeting, the Eggsteins were married in Casablanca in 2007, with a plan to move to Germany once Samira’s paperwork was processed.

But the German bureaucratic system was “overwhelming”, Hans said, proving “too long and with too many steps.” He demoted himself to waiter to make it easier to continue seeing Samira. “Being a manager was too much work to step away from,” Hans explained. “So, I stepped down.”

“For three years he was coming to visit me in Casablanca,” said Samira. “But it wasn’t enough.”

Frustrated by the lack of progress, the Eggsteins changed their plans and decided to move to the U.S. They applied for Samira’s green card and, within three months, had settled in Philadelphia, where Hans found her a job as a runner at Le Bec-Fin.

“It was like restaurant school,” Samira said of the experience. “I learned how to set up the table, how to serve, how to clean up. I loved it.”

‘A rollercoaster ride’

Samira moved on to other establishments, working at the Water Works, Chestnut Hill Hotel, White Dog Café, and Germantown’s Paris Bistro, where she went from waitressing to becoming assistant manager. Throughout, the couple kept the vision of opening their own cafe.

“We had no money, but the dream was there,” said Hans. “So, we started very slowly, doing catering on our days off.”

Tarte au citron at Chez Hansi on a table outside the South Street West BYOB. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

They set up Anfa Catering in 2016, working out of a commissary in University City on a menu of sauerkraut, veggie burgers, and salads. The service ran for a year and made no profit.

Hans was forced to retire from his day job due to health reasons. Samira went back to waitressing at Bistro la Baia on Lombard. On his way to pick Samira up one evening, Hans noticed a “for rent” sign in the window of 1610 South St., a small storefront that was previously home to Pumpkin Market.

Samira agreed the space was “very cute,” and right in line with their vision of a neighborhood café specializing in coffee, baguettes, and pastries.

Chez Hansi opened quietly in April of 2022 — “I have no money for advertising,” said Hans. It was a rocky start, the Eggsteins struggling to secure the regular clientele that their idea of an early morning cafe depended on. 

Samira found herself overworked, baking at night, setting up at Hansi in the morning before rushing off to her waitressing job, while Hans lamented the effort and trays of baked goods going to waste daily. Realizing the concept wasn’t working, the couple called an emergency meeting one late summer evening.

“We just closed the [restaurant] doors and had a brainstorm,” Samira said of the night a new menu was created and the decision taken to run Chez Hansi as a dinner spot, with dishes inspired by German and Moroccan cuisine, or as Hans describes it, “good home cooking.”

Eight months in, the reinvention seems to be working.

The labor is evenly split — the two shop daily for ingredients together, Samira bakes and serves customers while Hans cooks, and join forces for cleaning duties at the end of the night. The menu rotates weekly according to marketplace availability and Hans’ mood, with some staple dishes like the jaegerschnitzel, and a tajine that alternates between vegetarian and slow-braised lamb. Entrees hover between $20 and $30. 

Samira also makes weekly additions to the pastry menu, like a black forest cake she added to the usual lineup of lemon tart, chocolate mousse, tiramisu, and crème brulée, alongside the savory poultry-nut-and-berries bastillas. “Samira’s pastries are unbelievable,” beamed Hans.

Now settling into a routine, the Eggsteins are hoping to establish more of a presence in the community. They’re considering live jazz nights and a special cake promotion for Bastille Day. 

“It’s still a rollercoaster ride. One day you think “I made it” because it was busy, and then the next no business,” said Hans. “But I’m really happy with what we’re doing here.”

“It took too long,” Samira said, “But it makes you happy when people come and enjoy themselves and leave with a smile. It’s worth it.”

1610 South Street | 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday (closed Tuesday May 30) | (267) 455-0670

Ali Mohsen is Billy Penn's food and drink reporter.