During Hidden Gems Week, the Observer food and drink writers are celebrating an abundance of diverse, delicious restaurants and bars around Dallas, places that don’t often (or ever) get mentioned by big-name food media, trendsetters, bloggers or chefs. We’re taking you outside of the ordinary to help you discover something new.
A whole world of cuisines lies behind the label “Mediterranean.” Dallas has dozens of Mediterranean grills and buffets, all subtly or markedly different from one another, because the term is frequently used to describe Moroccan, Egyptian, Israeli, Palestinian, Lebanese, Syrian, Turkish, Iraqi and Persian cooking. Those countries all have different spice blends, national dishes and culinary traditions that, historically, have both contributed to and reacted to each other.
Today, we're focusing on the cuisine of Iraq. Why Iraq? For several reasons: because many Texans do not think of that country as having a separate cuisine, because Iraqi food is so well-represented in the Richardson area and because so many of our friends asked, “We have Iraqi food here?” We have lots of it. In fact, for the purposes of this list, we will be omitting Arlington, which has a separate Middle Eastern community; expect more coverage of Iraqi food in Arlington in the weeks to come.
Here’s where to find great Iraqi kebabs, sandwiches, breads and desserts in Dallas and Richardson.
Bilad Bakery and Restaurant: The one-stop shop and restaurant
850 S. Greenville Ave., Richardson. 972-744-9599. Open 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.
Bilad Bakery and Restaurant is a longtime Observer favorite. It was subject of one of our most-read reviews ever, for good reason: Bilad makes magnificent beef and chicken shawarma, its veggies and pickles are spot-on, and the fresh, homemade baklava is among the best we’ve ever tasted. Plus, Bilad is a working bakery that specializes in samoon, the pillowy-soft loaf shaped like an oval with points on each end and baked until its outside is just crisp. Samoon makes for an extraordinary sandwich — try a falafel sandwich with sweet-tart amba sauce — and a great take-home bag.
The small grocery store next door, also part of Bilad’s operation, sells Middle Eastern groceries, cheeses, spice mixes, produce and teas.
Haji Restaurant: Breakfasts on a budget
13340 Audelia Road, No. 135. 469-930-9595. Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.
Haji, in a half-empty strip mall on Audelia Road, is hard to see from the street, but eagle-eyed diners will be rewarded. The specialties here are lamb tashreeb (lamb shank) and an assortment of classic Iraqi breakfasts, like makhlama, scrambled eggs with ground lamb and spices. You can also try eggs with basturma, the cured and spiced meat that evolved in Europe into a slightly different form with a slightly different name: pastrami.
Haji serves a lot of breakfasts but opens at lunchtime. Dinner customers can enjoy a selection of unusually good Middle Eastern classics, including some of the region's best eggplant salad, characterful hummus, sharply acidic pickles and excellent falafel fried to order and speckled with sesame seeds.
World Food Warehouse: The grocery kebab counter
13434 Floyd Circle. 972-480-9911. Open 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday and 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday. Kebab counter closes 15-20 minutes before retail store.
World Food Warehouse would qualify as a hidden gem anyway, tucked into an industrial park near the headquarters of Texas Instruments. It is a small Middle Eastern take on Costco, a genuine warehouse full of an enormous selection of foods from across western and southern Asia. There are 18-inch-wide rounds of tandoori naan, tan-hued Palestinian watermelon seeds, enormous bulk bags of spices and a dazzling array of cheeses. There is also, to the left of the front door and cash registers, a small counter where Iraqi kebab sandwiches are on sale for $3.49.
Nothing too fancy here and no dine-in seating, either. Just a long, wide skewer of meat set over open coals, grilled, and slid into a rolled-up pita with tomatoes, onions and pickles. When you unroll the foil sleeve of the sandwich, the bewitching aroma makes the biggest mark: the rich, intoxicating smell of spice mix, beef and hot coals. The taste won't disappoint that first impression.
Albaghdady Bakery: A dessert haven
116 S. Greenville Ave., Richardson. 972-238-9200. Open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.
A tiny shop on Polk Street in downtown Richardson, Albaghdady is a working bakery with a small front room where the owners sell their wares. Lots of dessert pastries are available, including pistachio baklava, walnut baklava and several varieties of kanafah (a shredded wheat pastry with various mildly sweet fillings). Albaghdady also sells breads to go.
The bakery’s desserts are priced for wholesale — you can order by the pound for a party — so when we asked for just one piece of each, we received six for a mere $2. All six were excellent and fresh. There is, perhaps, better pistachio baklava in town, but the sheer variety at Albaghdady is hard to beat, and so is the freshness. Find a better, more rewarding $2 dessert in this city. It can’t be done.
Charcoal Avenue: Iraqi and Pakistani sandwiches to go
17509 Coit Road. 972-534-7809. Open 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 11:30 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday.
The newest restaurant on this list is Charcoal Avenue on Coit Road near UT Dallas. The small, friendly spot opened on Labor Day following a similar model to The Halal Guys: protein and rice bowls, salads, sandwiches, creamy white sauce and spicy red sauce. But there’s a difference: The restaurant’s staff members are from Pakistan and Iraq, which creates an intriguing mix of beef kebabs and Pakistani chargrilled chicken, all on long skewers set on a grill before the customers’ eyes. The sandwich bread — an enormous pita wrap — comes from a local Iraqi bakery.
We sampled a tawa chicken sandwich, and while the chicken chunks could be smaller (cooking the meat through results in overcooking the edges), the sauces were on point, the bread was excellent and the whole sandwich gave off the joyous charred smell of a charcoal grill.
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Chai Khanah: The crown jewel of the Richardson Iraqi food scene?
580 W. Arapaho Road, No. 406, Richardson. 972-234-1500. Open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
First things first: Chai Khanah has a side order of "extra lamb shank." Does any restaurant in Texas have a side order as cool as extra lamb shank? Sorry, mac and cheese, but you've been one-upped.
It's hard to know how to spell the name of this restaurant, which is listed as both Chai Khanah and Chaikhanah in different places onsite. There is also a slight learning curve for first-time visitors: Pay at the register when you're done, and don't hesitate to ask for napkins if you're at one of the tables with, quirkily, a Kleenex box instead. (Haji Restaurant also believes in Kleenex rather than napkins. Are Kleenexes and Iraqis a thing?)
But Chai Khanah's menu is the most extensive and most inviting of all the Iraqi restaurants in Richardson. It has a full breakfast list, along with arayes (lamb pies), kabsa (rice mixed with meat and spices), orfali kebabs (meatballs and eggplant), "Turkish" kebabs, lamb kebabs, shish tawook and kashkash kebabs, in which the meat is especially finely minced for a surprisingly soft, melt-in-the-mouth texture. Chai Khanah's samoon bread is nearly as good as Bilad Bakery's, and the dough is a little bit stretchier. We're excited to return and eat our way down the whole menu.