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Assyrian Restuarant in Chicago Reminds Iraqis of Home

Mataam al-Mataam in Albany Park gives its mostly Arabic-speaking clientele food and camaraderie that eases the grim news of war

By Deborah Horan
Chicago Tribune staff reporter
Published August 28, 2005

Lamb bakes in the oven as Kamel Botres works the customers on a lazy afternoon. He's serving up a taste of Iraq to Arabic-speaking clientele, a slice of homeland for Iraqis in Chicago.

Walk into his restaurant, Mataam al-Mataam, at the corner of North Kedzie and West Lawrence Avenues in Albany Park, and you walk into any eatery in Baghdad: The scent of roasting meat floats in the air, shawarma spins on a spit and leathery men smoke cigarettes over glasses of syrupy tea.

The war in Iraq intrudes--it's piped in via Al Jazeera on a big-screen TV whenever customers flip to that channel--but Botres, 49, an affable Assyrian Christian with big arms and a balding head, maneuvers to keep it out as often as he can.

"I try to put music on the TV instead so people don't think too much about it," Botres said, flipping to a Lebanese station called Dandana, which loosely translates to "having fun," he said.

He wants people to think of something other than the daily bloodshed that comes to mind when they think of Iraq.

He wants them to think of the food.

The dolma and gus and tashreeb and pacha.

Ah, yes, the pacha.

The boiled lamb's head is a savory delicacy to the people of Iraq. They eat the meat straight off the skull after boiling it in salted water with a pinch of parsley and spice. The cheeks are considered the best part. The eyeballs are removed before cooking.

At Mataam al-Mataam, Botres offers the popular dish during the winter, usually from October to March, when the hot broth can chase away the winter chill. His sister, Najeeba, one of the cooks, boils the skulls in a big vat in the morning, and they are usually sold out by mid-afternoon.

"If you don't come by 3 or 4 o'clock, it's gone," Botres said.

Botres also offers other savory dishes Middle Easterners everywhere know and love. Tashreeb or lamb shank, beef kabob and a chicken dish called shish taouk top the menu. Some of the most time-consuming dishes are the most popular.

There is dolma, a light doughy pastry filled with spinach and rice. There are grape leaves stuffed with meat and spice. And there is maqlouba, Arabic for "upside down," a rice and chicken dish prepared in a giant pan and then turned over like Bundt cake.

"Ooh, they take a lot of time," said Madeleine Daoud, another cook, slapping her hands on a flowered apron as she sprinkled salt into a vat of boiling rice.

The dishes have spawned a cottage industry in Albany Park that caters to Iraqi and Arab tastes. The lamb's heads come from a Lebanese butcher. The thick, football-shaped bread, called sammoun, is brought in piping hot by an Iraqi baker. The sweets, called hilwayat, come from an Arab confectioner.

The business niche has been good to Botres. "It's going well."

Better, he said, than the situation in Baghdad at the moment, foraying for a minute into politics before he turns his attention again to the food.

When Botres came to America in 1978, an eager 21-year-old student, he left behind a country "in super condition," he recalled. Saddam Hussein had not yet been elected president. Botres' family was middle class.

He left to study in the West but always figured he would return to Iraq.

He hasn't been back for years, and the reports he receives from his brother, Gabriel, a translator for the U.S. Army, based in Baghdad, have not been good, Botres said.


Focus on food

So he concentrates on the food, the restaurant and the clientele, trying to forget about the troubles in his homeland. The patrons are mostly Arabic-speaking: Assyrians and Shiites from Iraq, as well as Jordanians, Palestinians and Syrians.

They come for the familiarity, the friendship and the food.

"We all know each other," said Shmoyel Derywosh, 53, an Assyrian day laborer from northern Iraq. "I come every day."

"I can't go to Iraq so I come here," said Younan Younan, 62, a retired construction worker.

They talk, laugh and whittle away the hours drinking tea and catching the news on Al Jazeera--until Botres catches them and flips the channel back to music on Dandana.

"It's good traditional Iraqi food," said Adel al-Hazam, a factory worker from Basra in southern Iraq, who drove from his home in Goshen, Ind., to Mataam al-Mataam on a recent Saturday afternoon.

Attracting the youth

Increasingly, Botres said, his clientele has included young students who come from North Park University on Foster Avenue, and Botres said he has devised plans to keep them coming. Soon he'll start accepting credit cards, and in a few weeks he plans to add hookahs to the menu.

The tall water pipes, filled with gooey apple or strawberry flavored tobacco, called shisha in Arabic, are popular among the twenty-something crowd, he said, even at a time when smoking cigarettes isn't considered cool.

"The new wave of kids, they like it," Botres said of smoking hookahs.

He predicts food sales might go up with the hookah's arrival. "Shisha makes you hungry," he said.

His prices fit into a college budget: the $11 rice and lamb plate is the most expensive item.

And the atmosphere, straddling East and West, is both exotic and familiar, a likely draw for a college crowd. Pictures of Elvis and New York--with the Twin Towers intact--hang on either side of the big TV, where heartthrobs such as Lebanese singer Wael Kfoury croon on the Arab music station.

Botres has big plans to build a second restaurant, one that's a notch more upscale than Mataam al-Mataam, which he describes as a cafe. He has purchased property in Skokie, he said, and hopes to begin construction soon.

The new place won't feature a big-screen TV. No news will be good news, Botres figures.

And he won't call the new restaurant Mataam al-Mataam, Arabic for "the restaurant of all restaurants."

He plans to name it Dandana.



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