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Last week I wrote about the small West Rogers Park kubba plant, Kubba Mosul, Inc., where five varieties of the bulgur-wheat-and-meat Middle Eastern staple—aka kibbeh—are produced and shipped to 15 different states.
I only came to this by way of an aborted attempt to spelunk the twisted lineage of Assyrian-Iraqi restaurants in the city and nearby suburbs. By my rough count, this subset of Middle Eastern restaurants numbers about ten in all. That may not seem like a lot, particularly because there isn't a tremendous amount of difference in the menus of these places to distinguish them from Arab-run Middle Eastern restaurants—apart from a few key dishes. But I had a hunch that the swell of recent arrivals fleeing the troubles back home has prompted at least a small surge in the number of places that can produce a decent masgouf—or at least an approximation of the grilled Tigris river fish, so dear to Bagdhadis—or a serious bowl of pacha, a stew of sheep's head, trotter, and stomach usually savored in the the wintertime.
The fact is, the most recent wave of Assyrian-Iraqis arrived about 30 years ago, getting away from a different war.
Since then, restaurants and groceries have opened, closed, moved, and changed hands regularly among owners who sometimes go by more than one name. Probably the oldest operating one in existence is Albany Park's 24-hour George's Grill Kabab, which was recently visited by Andrew Zimmern on an amble through Albany Park for an upcoming Chicago episode of Bizarre Foods. He'd heard that the pacha there was something special, and owner Basma Jajou gave him a lesson in stomach stuffing.
George's is currently operated by Jajou and her family, in partnership with an older owner, Hermiz Koril, who has a hand in a few other restaurants, and whose grinning, framed portrait still hangs on the back wall. No one I asked seems to know who the original George was, but the restaurant has passed through many hands over some 30 years, and at least two former owners answered to that name. George's serves a polyglot male-and-female clientele who come at all hours for the mezes, kebabs, shawarma, and kubba mosul. A more distinctly male Iraqi clientele hangs out a few doors down at Ur Cafe, which sprung up to serve the card players and tea drinkers left homeless when Mataam al Mataam ("Restaurant of Restaurants") got booted out of its space at the corner of Kedzie and Lawrence in favor of Al-Amira.
Al-Amira is now gone, replaced by Baghdad Kabab.
This shifting landscape has been augmented in recent times by another passel of Assyrian-Iraqi spots clustered around the intersection of California and Devon. In addition to a handful of groceries, there's Uncle's Kabob, 2816 W. Devon, which does shawarma, kebabs, masgouf, and several kinds of kubba in ample portions, usually served alongside respectably curried bowls of yellow lentil soup.
Recently Uncle's has been joined by Hermiz Koril's Shawarma Inn II, the second outpost of a Lincoln Bend spot operated by his son. Further west, Devon also has Taza Bakery, a bustling strip-mall cafe and bakeshop that turns out the gamut of superfresh Middle Eastern breads, including the football-shaped Iraqi flatbreads known as samoon.
Outside of these enclaves, there are well-established spots such Larsa's Pizzeria, at 3724 Dempster in Skokie, Sahara Kabob in East Rogers Park, and Venus, right next door to Mosul Kubba near California and Touhy.
But Danny's Restaurant on Western, a few block south of Devon, is the most remarkable place in the bunch. Owner Sam Shamoun's commitment to freshness and vibrant flavors is apparent the second the tart, brilliantly colored turshi hits the table. He makes his own fragrant basturma—best eaten with eggs at breakfast—with a combination of ten spices, none of which he'd reveal to me (I guessed heavy doses of cinnamon and clove, but he wouldn't budge.) Unlike many of these places, which use frozen Kubba Mosul products, Shamoun makes his fresh in-house and runs it as an occasional special.
His most magnificent achievement is his masgouf, a gargantuan fish, its flesh luscious and fatty, with crispy caramelized bits along the exterior, blanketed by tomato sauce and baked. It's more than enough for two.