Ian McNulty: Fire, hummus and pompano at a restaurant for Iraqi flavors in Metairie | Where NOLA Eats

Friendly and engaging from the moment we walked into his restaurant, Almasgoof, Mahmoud “Alan” Alhattab grew perceptively more enthusiastic with each dish he brought to the table. He had much to show us.

First came the hummus – familiar, pleasingly thick, speckled with sumac – and the Iraqi salad, simple, fresh, with a touch of sweet-tart pomegranate syrup, and a prelude of what was to come.







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Pompano cooks near an open fire in the almasgoof style at the Metairie restaurant Almasgoof, serving flavors of Iraq. (Photo by Chris Granger | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)




The main course, the reason I’d assembled a carload of friends for a Sunday lunch in Metairie, was the fish. It was whole pompano, a dish we could smell before we saw, emanating the aroma of wood smoke as Alhattab drew it through the dining room.

Perhaps reading our eyes, he lingered at the table to give some backstory and instruction, beaming all the while.







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Mahmoud “Alan” Alhattab tends the fire for a preparation of almasgoof fish at his restaurant, also called Almasgoof, in Metaire. (Photo by Chris Granger | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)




This was fish almasgoof, the restaurant’s namesake. The term describes not a dish or recipe but a cooking style. The fish was split down the middle, butterflied open, marinated for three days, then pressed into a metal grill basket and cooked near – though not over – a roaring fire of charcoal and oak logs. It’s roasted with high, but indirect, heat.







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Pompano cooks near an open fire in the almasgoof style at the Metairie restaurant Almasgoof, serving flavors of Iraq. (Photo by Chris Granger | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)




Almasgoof is often called the national dish of Iraq, and now it has an eager ambassador here. How Alhattab came to serve flavors from the land of the Tigris and Euphrates here by the intersection of Transcontinental Drive and West Esplanade Avenue is one of fractious history, determination and the unifying power of good food served with heart.

Digging in







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Mahmoud “Alan” Alhattab prepares a table with traditional Iraqi dishes at his Metairie restaurant Almasgoof. (Photo by Chris Granger | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)




I have worked my way across many a pompano, usually at French Creole restaurants with a bit of butter sauce and crabmeat. The Almasgoof example was a revelation. It gave both long strips and tender bits of juicy meat under a surface cooked tight and golden, tinged with turmeric, a subtle-sweet tang I would later learn was more pomegranate syrup and a balancing burst of lemon.

Alhattab coached us through the first few bites, showing how to find the most flavorful morsels and how to bypass reefs of small bones.

“When we eat fish,” he said, “we use our fingers.”







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Mahmoud “Alan” Alhattab serves an assortment of Iraqi soda brands to customers visiting his Almasgoof restaurant in Metairie. (Photo by Chris Granger | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)




Alhattab is the proprietor, perpetual host, very often the waiter and usually the lead cook at Almasgoof. The restaurant is tucked into a B-grade strip mall, in what used to be a Chinese restaurant and was once a sushi bar (that lineage is clear in lingering design elements around the dining room).







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A sushi bar, now unused, is a holdover from a previous Japanese restaurant at the address Almasgoof restaurant now calls home in Metairie. (Photo by Chris Granger | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)




Today it is a showcase for Iraqi flavors. It is also delicious validation of peeling back what is too often known monolithically as Middle Eastern food and find the distinctive styles within this vast region.







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Figurines decorate a shelf at Almasgoof restaurant in Metairie, serving traditional flavors of Iraq. (Photo by Chris Granger | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)




In the same way that Kabob House, nearby in Metairie, is a place for Palestinian home-style cooking and Jamila’s Café on Maple Street is where to get Tunisian flavors, Almasgoof goes deep into Iraqi cooking.

A refugee’s journey







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Mahmoud “Alan” Alhattab and Karman Jose handle takeout orders at Almasgoof restaurant in Metairie. (Photo by Chris Granger | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)




Alhattab is from Basra, a riverfront city where almasgoof is an obsession. The pompano we were eating was a localized adaptation of the large, indigenous river carp Alhattab learned to cook while growing up in his own family’s restaurant there.

He was 18 when the first Gulf War erupted in 1990. He told me he served as an interpreter for the American army and was wounded by a sniper’s bullet to the leg. Seeking to flee his homeland, he ended up in a refugee camp in the desert, where he would spend five-plus years awaiting a visa to the United States. He describes a period of idled desolation as time ticked past.







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Almasgoof restaurant in Metairie serves traditional flavors of Iraqi, including almasgoof fish cooked over a wood fire. (Photo by Chris Granger | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)




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But the camp was well supplied with food through the American military, he said, and he turned to the cooking skills he learned at his family’s restaurant. He cooked daily for hundreds of other men in his unit of the camp.







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Mahmoud “Alan” Alhattab works the kitchen at his Metairie restaurant Almasgoof, which serves flavors of his native Iraq. (Photo by Chris Granger | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)




“It was like a prison, I had to do something to occupy myself and forget where I was; so I cooked every day,” Alhattab said. “I can’t forget those days, hard times, big time. But I got something out of it.”

In the U.S., he eventually made it to New Orleans where some family was already living. He opened Almasgoof last year, reasoning that a specific read on regional flavors would resonate in an area that already has plenty of spots for hummus and shawarma.

“Go big or stay home”







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Almasgoof restaurant in Metairie serves traditional flavors of Iraq. (Photo by Chris Granger | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)




Those standards are on the menu too, though like the best of such places they come to the table with their own distinctive touches. Chicken kabobs, called tikki here, taste like the could have come from an Indian tandoor oven. They’re served over great heaps of vermicelli rice, a colorful riot of earthy tones with a soft texture and soothing scent.

Whole chicken is prepared over the wood and charcoal fire too, and Alhattab can furnish an array of sauces to dip chunks of it, including a simple ramekin of honey.







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Almasgoof restaurant in Metairie on Wednesday, June 8, 2022. (Photo by Chris Granger | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)




A brick oven produces the house bread, a diamond-shaped flatbread called samoon that has a fluffy, airy interior and soft outer crust. More substantial than pita, it’s just right for ripping and dragging through hummus and babaganoush, which gets an extra dose of flavor from eggplant and peppers roasted over the wood fire.







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Mahmoud “Alan” Alhattab gives a high-five to his son Mujtaba at the family restaurant Almasgoof in Metairie, where the motto is “Go big or stay home.” (Photo by Chris Granger | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)




This is the very picture of a family restaurant. Alhattab’s teenage daughter Jumana waits tables here when she’s not at school; his grade school son Mujtaba uses the defunct sushi bar in the corner as his playroom.

If Alhattab has to travel, the restaurant will probably be closed for a day or two. And sometimes menu specialties aren’t available, like the whole lamb head, a Sunday dish, which has so far eluded a place at our tables.







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A tea kettle heats up over the wood fire at Almasgoof restaurant in Metairie. (Photo by Chris Granger | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)




The restaurant serves no alcohol and does not permit BYOB. Instead you can try Iraqi soda brands, like a mellow-sweet cola call Trabi. Better yet, get the house tea, which is cooked in a big copper kettle directly over the oak logs.

Alhattab has a motto for his restaurant: “Go big or stay home.”







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Almasgoof restaurant in Metairie serves traditional Iraqi dishes, including the namesake fish almasgood (center), whole chicken, shawarma, hummus and babaganoush and samoon bread. (Photo by Chris Granger | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)




You could read that as ordering instructions. Most dishes are around or under $20 and portioned to share. Four people can order up a feast for about $100 and expect enough leftovers for a big second meal.

But getting to know Alhattab a bit, and seeing the gusto with which he throws himself into hosting, “go big or stay home” seems more like a personal declaration.

At Almasgoof, he goes big introducing his heritage food to people in his adopted American home.

Almasgoof

5024 W. Esplanade Ave., Metairie, (504) 308-3600

Mon., Wed.-Sat. 10 a.m.-9 p.m., Sun. 10 a.m.-8 p.m. (closed Tue.)

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