There are no humble meals at Chai Khanah. Even a modest order at this Richardson restaurant, which opened earlier this year, is likely to swell with unexpected sides, baskets of bread and smoky grilled vegetables. Iraqi hospitality strictly forbids the idea of any customer leaving hungry or unsatisfied.
So my friends and I, just four of us, are staring at a table groaning under beef shawarma, chicken shish tawook grilled until the edges turned a crisp black, a chicken kebab spiced with lemon, two skewers of lamb kebab and one of beef, cups of lentil soup, three or four chargrilled tomatoes, a few grilled onion quarters, fiercely tangy strips of pickle, a cup of white beans stewed in tomato broth, a huge platter of rice pilaf with peas and cubed carrots, a bowl of fattoush salad, baba ghanoush, classic hummus, two plates of musabaha (hummus with the chickpeas whole rather than pureed), jajeck (tzatziki, but the cucumbers are pickled), a plate of pickles in sweet-tart amba sauce, two pieces of falafel fried to order, beef kibbeh, white onions tossed with sumac and parsley, long, thin slices of pita bread and three enormous, boat-shaped Iraqi samoon breads cut down the sides to make sandwiches.
After tax and a 20-percent tip, that comes to $16.50 per person.
Anyone who visits this restaurant and doesn't Feast, with a capital F, is doing it wrong. Faced with this eye-popping array of Iraqi foods, my three friends and I love and devour so much that we only need one to-go box.
The rice pilaf is borderline magical, but the trick is simple: using almost as much butter as rice. When upscale American restaurants start serving musabaha, they’ll probably call it deconstructed hummus: The whole chickpeas are tossed in tahini sauce and stirred with copious parsley. We like our plate so much that we tell our waiter how good it is; without a request or even a hint, he brings out another. The standard hummus is excellent, too, like a more intense, hyperconcentrated version of the dip at many other restaurants.
Falafel here is crisply fried, the interior green with herbs, but the flavor is nothing out of the ordinary; I prefer the light, bubbly texture of the edges of the kibbeh, a ball of crisp, cracked wheat batter with ground beef inside.
Meanwhile, I'm falling in love with a side dish that is an acquired taste: pickles in amba ($2). Amba is an Iraqi sauce, also common as far east as India, that might best be described as mango mustard. Pickled mangoes get mixed with mustard seeds and other spices to produce it. The appeal is certainly not universal; at least one of my friends immediately rejects it as revolting, but those who like sweet-and-sour sauces or honey mustards should give amba a try. I scoop up half the plate by myself.
Among the meats on our two-person combo plate ($27), the beef shawarma is not especially flavorful, but the lemony chicken kebab is. My favorites are two other styles, chicken shish tawook and its slightly blackened edges, which really show off the smoky magic that can be achieved with real charcoal grilling, and a specialty kebab called kashkash (not on the combo plate; $10 for two skewers or $16 for four). The texture of kashkash is a delight. The meat is minced so finely that each meatball, inside the crisp, grilled outer edges, is astonishingly tender.
The breakfasts are just as transporting, albeit less vegetarian friendly. Makhlama ($11) is the perfect comfort breakfast, a platter of scrambled eggs mixed with ground lamb, spices, tomatoes and onions. There might well be more lamb than eggs. I took slices of pita and rolled the makhlama into a snack that would put many breakfast tacos to shame.
No pita is necessary for those who order tashreeb ($14), a majestic monument to the united power of protein and carbs. Tashreeb is a lamb shank, so tender that the meat pulls off at the touch of a fork, perched atop a stew. The stew combines butter and broth from the meat with a beguiling array of spices — among them cinnamon and curry powder — and sets the result over a pile of Iraqi bread. There’s not much else to it; tashreeb was invented by cooks who couldn’t afford much more. Some places add chickpeas or veggies; Chai Khanah does not, but it’s beguiling nonetheless.
Eating at Chai Khanah is a bit of a learning curve, but that makes me want to keep going back. Some of the menu items are only available certain days of the week, which the menu doesn’t explain. I’m dying to try arayes — pita bread stuffed with lamb and baked or grilled — but staff suggests coming back on a Monday to do so ($15). That sounds worth an expedition.
On our first visit, my table waited nearly a half-hour after the meal before realizing that we were supposed to pay at the counter. The good news is that the service is exceedingly friendly and hospitable, and everyone at Chai Khanah takes genuine pleasure in welcoming non-Iraqi diners.
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Chai Khanah’s owner is Salah Hassan, who operates Albaghdady Bakery in downtown Richardson and who has a harrowing biography involving a narrow escape from Saddam Hussein’s regime. Chai Khanah plans more improvements in the future, including a lunch buffet and a traditional oven to bake the Iraqi breads in full view of the dining room. The restaurant already has an opulent feel thanks to a mosaic of mirrored tiles in the shape of a birdbath and nearly a dozen paintings depicting various scenes in Middle Eastern life.
The parts don’t always quite seem to match — in the decorations, in the menu’s not-today blips or in the fact that some tables have Kleenex boxes in lieu of napkins. The breakfasts are more accurately brunches since Chai Khanah opens at midmorning.
But why complain? This is the crown jewel of Richardson’s Iraqi food scene, an absolute treasure of a restaurant and a testament to the hard work of Hassan and his family. As far as whether a meal is breakfast or brunch or lunch, what matters is that it will be a feast.
Chai Khanah, 580 W. Arapaho Road, No. 406, Richardson. 972-234-1500. Open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.