Inside Sherwani Bakery (2040 West Spring Creek Parkway) in Plano, Salah Hassan, the Iraqi baker and proprietor, greets me by extending his forearm for a handshake. Caked dough and flour generously coat his hands, but his hospitality is as deeply ingrained as the dark burn scars along his arm. He can't chat for more than a minute until he must get back to work. He single-handedly runs the business and making bread is somewhat of an assembly line -- a slight kink or change of pace could mean a bad batch. He can't stop, and it seems that if he could, he wouldn't.
The decor of Sherwani is sparse -- a couple worn couches, a few wall-hangings, and a folding table with the register on top -- but the bread is the product of a seasoned veteran. This is easily assumed upon entering to the smell of warm dough -- simple, hearty, delicious. The inside of the thin rounds is airy and moist, the bubbles on top are crispy, and the bottom is smooth and flat.
The homemade bread is born of a homemade oven. Hassan built his own tandoor, a metal cylinder with a flat dented lid in a tile encasement with a gas flame deep in its belly -- a more modest version than what he had in Iraq, where he lived and worked in his family's bakery for most of his life.
He ran the business, which he describes as the biggest and most well known bakery in Baghdad, while seasoned employees carried out his family's recipes for Iraqi bread and sweets of all sorts, flaky and generously drizzled in honey. Back then, Hassan's own hands were rarely coated in floury putty, and his wife and daughters didn't have to work. Day-to-day life was comfortable.
That was several years before the take-down of Saddam Hussein and before the most recent invasion of the country. While Hassan's family had a comfortable life back then, influences beyond their control stained every day with uncertainty. The government could become suspicious of one's political or religious affiliations, and a short time later, a family member may stop showing up at the dinner table. War was a seemingly endless state; the future becoming continuously more uncertain.
By nature, Hassan was never a man to keep quiet about things that unsettled him. And one day, it caught up when a friend connected with a government agency told him that his name was on a list. He knew what that meant. It was time to leave his country and his bakery, lest he face the threat of death.
That was more than 10 years ago. Since then Hassan and his family took refuge in Jordan and Lebanon and completed reams of refugee paperwork, which eventually lead them to North Texas two years ago. He's worked odd jobs at other food shops since, but being on the bottom rung of someone else's business never felt natural. Finally, he opened his own place.
Six days a week, he's in the bake shop molding pillows of dough into perfect spheres, all measured to the same softball size by muscle memory as he passes the dough mounds from one hand to the other. He flattens the spheres of dough and tosses them from hand to hand to form thinner sheets. Then he stretches them onto a towel-covered mound and plunks them onto the inside of the oven. There, they stick as though defying gravity as they bubble and crisp into delicious circles. Fresh from the oven, at about 50 cents per sizable piece, Hassan's bread is a steal.
It's also what puts food on his family's table, though sometimes just barely. New to the country and new to working so much for so little, Hassan struggles to make end's meet. He cannot yet afford the man-power, ingredients, or supplies to make a daily array of sweets, though he enjoys making dessert even more than bread. If a customer calls ahead, he'll gladly oblige and fill any request for Iraqi specialties. (The day I visited he made a delicate cylindrical cream-filled dessert that translates loosely to 'Lady's Arms'). If he makes enough bread, he hopes to eventually grow his bread shop into a full-service bakery. And he can't stop making bread.