Please don’t forget the garlic sauce — if you forget the garlic sauce I’ll be in trouble with my wife,” a customer tells Hummam al Naqeeb, owner of Mesopotamia Delicatessen, who’s taking orders behind the counter.
“I understand,” al Naqeeb replies. “I used to keep a sleeping bag in my car in case I was in trouble with my wife.”
The easy rapport that Mesopotamia’s owner has with his customers belies the geographical and cultural distance between his world and the Short Pump location that he and his wife chose for their restaurant.
Along with his wife, Shymaa al Durrah, al Naqeeb moved with their deli and grocery concept to the West End from Baghdad. As in Iraq. As in, he not only owned a similar shop in Baghdad, but also acted as a translator for the State Department and eventually felt he needed to leave his home country.
On my first visit, al Naqeeb asks if it it’s my first time in his shop. When I say yes, he immediately makes a small plate with samples of most of the sides made that day. Such familiar dishes as hummus and mild curried vegetables mingle with food I’ve never had, such as beets tahini or eggplant meffeskh. The next customer receives a similar greeting and the same freshly arranged sampler plate.
Main dishes are more familiar to those with a passing knowledge of Middle Eastern cuisine: Kebabs, schawarma and falafel dominate the small menu. Available as a sandwich or a meal with two sides, all but the falafel are meats cooked on a grill. The shish taouk ($9.99) is chicken that’s been charcoal-grilled and is served incredibly juicy and tender between onions and peppers as a kebab. My family and I negotiate over every last large chunk of meat on those tiny sticks.
The lamb and beef kebab ($5.99 sandwich, $8.99 meal) features ground meat shaped around a stick and grilled, lending a nicely charred and smoky flavor. The thin pita accompaniment makes a perfect tool for breaking off chunks of meat to dip into Mesopotamia’s house-made, mildly pungent, yogurt-based garlic sauce. Falafel, ($4.99 sandwich, $7.99 meal), is a solid if not inspirational take on the classic fried ground chickpea mix. But the sides are what make every main dish shine.
Each is available if you order a main dish as a meal or can be bought as standalone dishes. I highly recommend the beets tahini ($5.99), almost-pureed beets mixed with ground sesame that leaves a bright red creamy mix with deep earthy flavors. Eggplant meffeskh ($6.99), soft-cooked eggplant and tomatoes, makes a wonderfully mellow complement to any of the flavorful main dishes. The tabblouleh ($6.99) may be my favorite, mostly because this is the first version I’ve enjoyed, as it’s heavier on Italian parsley rather than either the bulgur wheat or fresh tomatoes. It’s dominated by bright and herbal notes that lend freshness to any meal.
I ask for baba ghanouj ($6.99) and am told it’s unavailable. When asked when it might be available, the reply comes quickly: “In about an hour — we’re roasting more eggplant now.” The commitment to freshness and quality is evident in every dish.
Seating is limited, and many people opt for takeout. The bulk of the space is reserved for groceries that comprise any Middle Eastern specialty you might crave, including Bulgarian feta, olives and dried beans. Grab a piece of baklava to go and expect it to be refreshingly less syrupy sweet than many versions, with the crispy flakiness of the pastry remaining intact.
I ask al Naqeeb, selfishly, if he’s planning to expand to the city. “A lot of people ask me that,” he says. I nod, understanding why. Mesopotamia is that rare gem — food that’s deeply connected to the history of the family that owns and runs the place. There’s a sense of welcome that’s unusual, even in the South that prides itself on its tradition of hospitality. And most important to Mesopotamia’s longevity, quality food is served at a reasonable price.
Both Chesterfield County and Richmond are on the radar if things continue to go well at this location, al Naqeeb indicates. But wherever Mesopotamia II or III lands, I’ll be stopping by the current spot any time I find myself in the West End. And I’ll continue to hope that it expands closer to my home. S
3420 Lauderdale Drive
Mondays-Fridays 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; Saturdays 11 a.m.-6 p.m.