I had planned to go to a Lebanese restaurant last night, but it was decidedly closed when Empanada Boy and I rolled up at the late hour of 9:15 pm. Instead of driving away, we opted to examine the spots nearby, most of which are Middle Eastern. That’s how we found Mataam Al-Mataam, a traditional Iraqi restaurant, which has become a local hangout for refugees. I later found out that Mataam Al-Mataam translates into “restaurant of all restaurants.” Unfortunately, the food fell short of the koranic magnitude of its name.
Three of the eight or ten tables in the dark and somewhat dingy room were filled with men talking, smoking and alternately watching the basketball game and what appeared to be Al-Jazeera news, which was playing on another, large screen TV. All heads turned briefly when we walked in, but then went back to their business when we sat down at a sunken leather booth.
The waitress, who was the only woman in the room, seemed glad to see us when she came to bring us menus. I asked if we were allowed to drink alcohol in the restaurant, and she said no. She later offered to bring us plastic cups to drink the beer we had brought with us, but not wanting to upset any of the other customers, I said we were fine with water.
We started off well with an order of baba ghanouj (see photo above). It arrived speckled with paprika and cupping a pool of olive oil. The tahini and lemon juice flavors were bright and vibrant, but I wanted a little more smoky depth from the eggplant. The accompanying basket of pita was warm and toasted straight off the grill.
Empanada Boy ordered schwarma, which came with soup and a salad. The potato soup in a tomato based broth was nicely spiced with cumin, but the salad was a dismal failure. Wilted pieces of iceberg lettuce were topped with sad, under ripe tomatoes an clumsily cut, thick slices of partially peeled cucumbers. Neither EB nor I felt an urge to touch that one. The schwarma itself was too dry and lacked the fattiness that usually gives this meat flavor. It improved to some degree when eaten with the buttery rice and when sauced with some of the tahini that came with my dish.
I opted to sample Mataam Al-Mataam’s falafel, or “falafil” as they spell it. I got a large plate with six balls. They were nicely spiced with coriander, cumin and parsley, and their breadiness was brightened by the addition of the tahini. EB says he prefers them crispier, and I think I agree. In order to achieve that, the balls need to be smaller with a greater surface area to volume ratio. The major downfall of this dish was another tragic “salad” that came on the side. I picked out the tomatoes to add a little acidity to my falafel, but I wouldn’t go near the lettuce.
All things considered, I enjoyed the cultural experience of dining at Mataam Al-Mataam far more than I enjoyed the food. The waitress described the food as homemade, but to me, it tasted dry and kind of thrown together. Fresh produce would vastly improve some of the dishes we tried. Tragically, fresh produce is not to be found in war-torn Iraq. But it would not be less authentic if the cooks here stopped in at the grocery store just across the street.
3200 W Lawrence Ave
Chicago, IL 60625