I've always wanted to summer in Baghdad, and now at last I can. No, silly, I'm not joining the Army National Guard. I may be the size of John Candy, but this is no rerun of Stripes on basic cable. Rather, my imaginary journey to the banks of the Tigris can be facilitated by my recent discovery of a little corner of Mesopotamia on Camelback Road, just west of 36th Avenue, where Baghdad Restaurant shares a parking lot with a Middle Eastern grocery called Babylon Market.
I did not seek out this unpretentious headquarters for Iraqi eats. Instead, happenstance was my guide. I was returning from a trek to a tailor's on 43rd Avenue, who had promised to fix a pair of split trousers posthaste, when going east on Camelback I espied a sign that bluntly read "Baghdad Food." Well, that's not something you see every day (unless you're in Baghdad, I reckon). So I eased the Studebaker into the strip mall for further investigation.
(Interestingly, the block of businesses Baghdad is in sits catty-cornered to Alhambra High School, likely named for the famous fortress of Moorish kings in Granada, Spain, though the school district could not confirm this.)
3650 West Camelback Road (just west of 36th Avenue), Phoenix
Lamb and rice: $6.99
Fish and rice: $7.99
Baba ghanouj: $2.50
Falafel plate: $4.50
602-433-5206. Hours: Daily, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.
After a brief survey of Babylon Market's vast array of Middle Eastern goods, everything from boxes of Turkish delight and Persian teas to Muslim prayer beads and row upon row of exotic spices, I was terribly peckish and ready to give Baghdad Restaurant a go. Stated simply, BR is long on hospitality, short on decor. I feared communication would be a problem, but my servers seemed to understand English well enough and seated me with friendly smiles soon after I entered.
In the dining area, the tables are covered with red-and-white-checked tablecloths and set with vases of plastic flowers and eating utensils wrapped in paper napkins. The floor is white tile, the walls a pale, faded lavender hung with the occasional passage from the Koran. In the rear, a TV set is mounted high up in one corner, and Arabic programming is transmitted via satellite. Sometimes patrons are watching a comedy. Other times, it's a news show, wherein certain place names stand out for us non-Arabic speakers: Najaf, Fallujah, Mosul, and so on.
As for the comestibles, I'm pleased to report that Baghdad serves some of the better Middle Eastern cuisine I've had in Phoenix, and some of the cheapest. For about $20, two people can fill their innards to bursting with superior ethnic fare. Every meal comes with a side of salad, a hearty cup of chicken-lentil soup, and a serving of round Iraqi flatbread. Though the salad is a standard mix of lettuce and cucumber, Baghdad's flatbread, referred to as tannour for the kind of oven it's traditionally made in, is fit for a Sumerian potentate. Light and delicious, with huge brown bubbles from the heat, it's similar to Indian naan. But go during the day to enjoy it fresh. Otherwise you'll have to make do with the chewy leftovers, or just plain pita bread that's been warmed up for you.
With a little salt and sumac (provided in shakers on the tables), that lentil soup, which is a close cousin to Indian dal, is quite satisfying. In fact, a bigger bowl of that soup, a plate of tannour, and a side of Iraqi pickles -- a sour assortment of radishes, cucumbers, baby carrots and cauliflower -- could easily make a meal. Add on a side of Baghdad's thick, pulpy baba ghanouj eggplant dip topped with black olives and sliced tomato, and I almost could turn vegetarian for a day, minus the chicken in the soup.
Of course, if I became a bleedin' veg-head I'd miss the gastronomic gratification to be derived from Baghdad's excellent entrees, all of which come with saffron rice. These include lamb shank, chicken tikka, whole fried fish and kebab made of minced beef and lamb. Since my first visit, I've eaten each, and would be hard-pressed to pick a favorite. BR could teach other restaurants in town how to prepare lamb shank. Here it falls off the bone as soon as you begin to move some to your mouth, and is as flavorful as any you'll get in some swanky four-star joint. And the mixed lamb and beef kebab is a revelation: cigar-like cylinders of ground viands, seasoned with a potpourri of spices. Bite into a forkful, and you'll be treated to a wonderfully moist meat ambrosia.
The chicken tikka are marinated kebab-like chunks of bird, and if you're lucky enough to have leftovers, the remainder makes a great lunch for the following day. But better than the chicken tikka, I like the whole, deep-fried tilapia, which Iraqis refer to as baltik. There's no breading, and it's only mildly fried. Thus the taste overcomes a frying process that at lesser holes-in-the-wall leads to drier, duller fish.
For all these superior repasts, I have to thank my new friend, chef and owner Rasul Alramahy, who hails originally from just outside the city of Samawah on the Euphrates. Now 33, Alramahy fled Iraq when he was 19, only to end up spending seven long years in a refugee camp in the Saudi Arabian desert. Offered the chance to be relocated in this country, he jumped at it, and in 1997 was on an airbus bound for New York City. From there, he was sent to Phoenix, where the big, effusive fellow worked at car-rental places and other jobs until he decided to go into business for himself, using money he'd saved and borrowed from family.
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"America is great," grins Alramahy. "Here if you want to say, 'George Bush go to hell,' you can, and no one cares. But back when I was in Iraq, if you said, 'Saddam Hussein go to hell,' your ass was gone, man, I'm not kidding."
Alramahy's father had a restaurant in Iraq, so cooking is in his blood. But after having his own business here in Phoenix for nearly three years, Alramahy's considering turning the whole kit and caboodle over to his relative Ali Alhachami, who helps him run the business now. Seems Alramahy wants to move to San Diego.
"I want to try it and see. Maybe I'll stay, or maybe I'll come back in a month," explains Alramahy. "I love Phoenix, but San Diego is so beautiful, and the weather is perfect there, man, I'm telling you."