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Why Are Iraqi Burgers So Good?

Hint: he who controls the spice controls the universe.
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Iraqi chefs mix beef with lamb and spices to make their burger patties—and for one chef in Pantego, burgers are a big part of the reason he was able to move to Texas. Anita Moti

Last year, after I wrote a review of the Iraqi restaurant Gilgamesh, a reader wrote in to ask: “Why do Iraqi restaurants make such great burgers?” This reader kept visiting Gilgamesh with the intention of trying one of its kebabs, only to get stuck on its spellbinding burger instead.

The burger at Fattoush Mediterranean Kitchen in Pantego is another gem. It’s simple and unadorned—though I request grilled jalapeños—and tremendously flavorful. According to Fattoush’s chef-owner, Bashar Al Mudhafar, two things make his and other Iraqi burgers stand out. 

The first is the ingredients. Like many Middle Easterners, Iraqis like to add lamb and seasonings into their patties. Whereas the classic American burger is just ground beef seasoned on the outside with salt and pepper, folks from the Middle East might fold in onions, parsley, breadcrumbs, or spices. (My Turkish family adds a packet of kofte kebab seasoning mix.) 

“We make it with lamb and beef,” Al Mudhafar says of Iraqi burgers. “We put in spices. In Baghdad, I served around 500, 1,000 burgers every day.” His recipe in Texas tones down the spices to please American palates, but he still adds unusual touches such as nutmeg. Sauces, on the other hand, are kept simple: a little ketchup, mustard, or mayo at the customer’s request. “I like to get the taste from the meat, not from the sauces,” Al Mudhafar says.

The second element that makes Iraqi burgers stand out is the personal experience of the chef. Although nobody knows how or when burgers were originally exported to the Middle East, they are now as popular there as everywhere else. Yet chefs like Al Mudhafar often have highly individualized connections to the food. Here’s how he tells his story:

“In Baghdad, I opened a small food cart on the street. I still remember in 2006—street war every day. With my food cart, I stayed open until 2 o’clock in the morning, and you heard the shots, the bombs, but I turned on the generator and the light, and people stayed. Just for a burger and fries.

“I still remember when the Humvees came on patrol, they smelled and stopped. They came to me and said, ‘We liked the smell so much. That’s why we stopped here.’ I started to sell a lot of burgers for them. One soldier always had a triple burger. He told me, ‘I’m from Tennessee. I smell the same thing in Tennessee, the guy who makes my burger there.’ After that, I opened my small shop on the side of the street. I got the same thing—Humvees.”

Some of those soldiers gave Al Mudhafar certificates and recommendation letters that helped him apply for refugee status in the United States. Now his story has come full circle. Instead of adapting the American burger to the street carts of Baghdad, he’s bringing Iraq’s burger tradition to Texas.


Three Iraqi Burger Joints in North Texas

Albaghdady Bakery and Cafe 327 N. Greenville Ave., Richardson

Fattoush Mediterranean Kitchen 2304 W. Park Row Dr., Ste. 25, Pantego

Gilgamesh Restaurant 300 Terrace Dr., Ste. 301, Richardson


This story originally appeared in the May issue of D Magazine. Write to [email protected].

Author

Brian Reinhart

Brian Reinhart

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Brian Reinhart became D Magazine's dining critic in 2022 after six years of writing about restaurants for the Dallas Observer and the Dallas Morning News.
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