New York City is famous for its small ethnic restaurants, among other things. With such a variety of eateries, you'd think there would be dozens of Iraqi restaurants in the city. There is only one, however: La Kabbr on Ninth Avenue between 47th and 48th streets.
In the 18 months the restaurant has been open, it has become much more than just a place to eat — it is a haven for Iraqis longing for a little taste of home.
An Iraqi House Party
If you go to La Kabbr most any Saturday night, you'll be greeted by live music and what looks very much like an Iraqi house party. People who want to have a small intimate dinner don't come here. La Kabbr, by design, is a communal experience. Two long tables gobble up most of the floor space in the restaurant. The small tables that hug the walls on a weeknight are pulled close on weekends so that everyone is rubbing shoulders with everyone else.
By the end of the evening, sitting alongside strangers becomes beside the point. Everyone in the restaurant is dancing together, passing plates and offering hookah pipes to each other, blowing strawberry-scented smoke toward the ceiling.
David Yusef is a typical customer. He came to the United States about eight years ago from his birthplace of Kirkuk, in northern Iraq. He drives two hours to get to the restaurant from New Jersey and eats here several times a week. "If I could," he says, "I would eat here eight days a week."
Typically, he arrives with nearly a dozen friends to listen to live Iraqi music, eat Iraqi kebabs and talk politics over a glass of chai or Iraqi tea.
'They All Seem To End Up Here'
The man who makes this all possible is Farouq Mansoor. He was born in southern Iraq just outside of Basra where, some biblical scholars say, the Garden of Eden once stood. He moved to Baghdad as a teenager, and studied Italian and French cooking there.
His family moved to the U.S. in the 1970s, and Mansoor finished his culinary education in Michigan. He opened an Iraqi restaurant there — a giant place with a Tandoor oven and a kitchen that stood in the middle of the place so customers could watch the kebabs come off the grill — to serve the enormous Arabic population around Detroit. While the economy was good, business was brisk. When the downturn came, Mansoor shuttered the place and relocated to New York City.
"There is always business in New York City," he says. "This is the world's top city."
In the year and a half he has been running La Kabbr, business has been brisk. Members of the Iraqi mission at the United Nations are frequent customers, as are Iraqi emigres and journalists who have done a tour in Iraq to cover the war.
"Every journalist who has gone to Baghdad from New York has been here," says Mansoor. "They might not like the danger of covering the war, but every journalist comes back loving, yes, loving, the Iraqi people. And they all seem to end up here."
Mansoor cooks the food they serve here alongside three Hispanic chefs in a tiny kitchen in the basement. He prides himself on serving dinner here the same way someone might experience it in Iraq. There is Basmati rice, and stew with all the entrees. "Exactly like the Iraqi tradition," he says.
Mansoor has even jerry-rigged a way to make a traditional Iraqi fish dish called masgouf. It is a white fish, usually carp, that Iraqis split open, lay flat and cook under an open flame. He shows me a special oven that basically contains an open flame.
"This is just like the one we have in Iraq," he says. "Except in Iraq, we do it with wood. But here you cannot burn no wood, they put you in jail. So I built a broiler and it comes out just like masgouf."
The food at La Kabbr isn't fancy. Instead, it is what is best described as Iraqi "down-home" fare. The kebabs are made with fresh ground lamb. The samoon, an Iraqi bread, is made here and is very much like the fluffy bread you can get on every street corner in Iraq. "I make everything that mom and grandma used to make in Iraq," he says. In fact, because he was trained in French and Italian cooking, his mother and grandmother had to lend him their recipes when he first got started.
Celebrating A Different Iraq
You might think one of the main topics of conversation at La Kabbr would be the war in Iraq. In fact, the subject is a little taboo. It is the one thing people don't seem to want to talk about. Maybe that is because it isn't the Iraq they remember — many came here before the war even started — or maybe because La Kabbr seems to be celebrating a different Iraq altogether; an Iraq that no longer exists.
In Iraq, there remain few restaurants where people can while away the hours with friends. There are some juice bars and kebab shops in the Karrada district of Baghdad, but it is too dangerous to mill around there for long. Places where people congregate are easy targets for suicide bombers or car bombs.
Sectarian violence also haunts Iraq. While the worst of it happened several years ago, there are lingering effects. You rarely see a Sunni sitting next to a Shiite sitting next to a Christian — too many suspicions remain. Many neighborhoods in Baghdad have been ethnically cleansed and are still that way today.
"The situation in Iraq is not that good," said former Basra native Hadith Solomon in a typical La Kabbr evasion of the war. "Here we feel like this is like the old times, when we were in Iraq."
All the sectarian violence that has come to be identified with Iraq doesn't rear its head here, he says. "I am a Christian from the South," he begins and then motions to his friends across the table. "He's Christian from the North. She's Sunni, Muslim Sunni, from Baghdad. It really doesn't matter. After all, we're American Iraqis, Iraqi Americans. Whatever you call it."
In between hopping from one table to another, Mansoor avoids discussion of the war. "It just makes me sad," he said when he slowed down. "My beautiful country, it is ruined. I don't like to talk about it."
That's the unspoken rule at La Kabbr. While everyone knows that violence is raging back home or that family members are witnessing war up close, it isn't something that they bring with them in here. Instead, they allow La Kabbr to do what it does best — transport them to the Iraq that existed before the war.