"You have to give me a couple days," says Ron Hermiz, sounding harried. "Everyone here is crying for the product." A customer in Michigan is on the phone, wanting to place a large order of kubba, the dish of bulgur wheat and minced meat known more commonly as kibbeh.
He hangs up and sighs. "He's one of our of big buyers," he explains. "Everyone's panicked. I'm totally out of it. It's so busy, because Ramadan's coming up now. I can't catch up."
Hermiz, 28, is the man behind Mosul Kubba, Inc., one of only three USDA-licensed manufacturers of kubba in the country. The truth is, he says, he's been behind in his orders for two years.
Kubba is a pan-Levantine dish that appears in many forms, though Iraqis will tell you they're all derived from the one that comes from the northern city of Mosul. Kubba Mosul is a flat disc of cracked bulgur stuffed with spiced ground or pounded meat—in Hermiz's case, beef—with perhaps some nuts or raisins thrown in. It's eaten boiled, grilled, or fried, sliced into pie wedges and maybe squirted with a wedge of lemon.
Hermiz is Assyrian-Iraqi, and his large extended family comes from a village in northern Iraq called Dawoodia. Many of his clan immigrated here or to Michigan in the late 70s and early 80s, fleeing the Iran-Iraq war. That's what his parents and aunt and uncle did in 1982, when Ron was six months old.
Prior to that his mother and aunt worked at Abu Jalal, a well-known kubba joint in Baghdad. There they learned everything they could about the form from the owner, a kinsman from Dawoodia. They put that training to use in 1991, when they opened a restaurant at the corner of Lawrence and Spaulding, currently one of two epicenters for Assyrian-Iraqi food in the city. (There's also a handful of groceries and restaurants around the intersection of Devon and California.)
Hermiz's mom called it Nineveh, for the ancient capital of Assyrian Iraq (now Mosul). In addition to fresh kubba, they sold shawarma and kebabs until family problems forced them to sell out in 1994. They got back in the game four years later, when the old man who opened Mosul Kubba on California just south of Touhy was ready to retire. "His game plan was only to sell kubba fresh, right off the pot," says Hermiz. But over three years he added different varieties, such as kubba tobsi, smaller bulgur patties, meant to be boiled, as well as kubba halab (named for the Syrian city of Aleppo), which has the more familiar football shape of the most common form of kubba but is made from ground rice filled with meat and deep-fried.
When Hermiz's mom and aunt took over the little place, its reputation grew. People from out of state would come to buy large orders of kubba, as well as potato chops—ground beef encased in a fried mashed-potato shell—and Iraqi borek, which look like deep-fried egg rolls. And occasionally these would wind up being resold in grocery stores. Someone—Hermiz thinks it was a competitor—complained to the USDA, and since the plant wasn't USDA certified, inspectors shut them down. It took a few years and considerable expense, but the family brought the small plant up to federal standards and reopened in 2002, doing away with the takeout service and instead making deliveries themselves and dealing directly with distributors.
Hermiz bought the business from his mother five years ago, and today frozen bags of his potato chops, borek, and five varieties of kubba are sold in 15 states. A few restaurants around town use them too, including Venus, the place right next door, and George's Grill Kabab, on Lawrence, the oldest Assyrian-Iraqi restaurant in town.
Hermiz employs four people full-time in the tiny storefront (plus extra help during the busy pre-Ramadan run-up), operating the mixers and a custom-made Japanese kubba machine he bought at the annual National Restaurant Association show at McCormick Place. His, he says, is only one of three in existence—the other two are in Saudi Arabia. He wouldn't let me see it, nor would he allow me back in the plant.
"Everyone sees that I'm so busy that they want to compete against me," he says.
You can find Mosul Kubba products in clear plastic bags with black-and-white labels in the freezer cases at Somer Food Market (2816 W. Devon, 773-338-9893), Al Khayyam Bakery (4738 N. Kedzie, 773-583-3077), Sanabel Bakery & Grocery (4213 N. Kedzie, 773-539-5409), and Sahar Meat Market (4829 N. Kedzie, 773-583-6098), among other Middle Eastern groceries around town.