For mouth-watering Iraqi kebabs, you just have to ask

For mouth-watering Iraqi kebabs, you just have to ask
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At first glance, day-trippers to this Mississauga plaza might skip places like Ishtar Catering and Tanoor Bread Kitchen , two Iraqi caterers located a few doors down from each other at 2399 Cawthra Rd.

Neither has a menu posted at the storefront. Through word-of-mouth they are known as the places to go for a giant platter of quzi (slow-roasted lamb served on rice), butterflied grilled fish, kebabs, or lamajoun by the dozen.

But those familiar with these places know a takeout lunch can be had. They just have to ask at the counter.

At Tanoor Bread Kitchen, juicy skewers of charcoal-kissed shish tawook or falafels are packed into a samoon (an Iraqi yeast bread) or served over rice. On a recent lunch visit, workers grilled juicy veal and beef kebabs, finished with sumac and brightened by the acid in the pickled radish.

The place originally only did catering with a small retail space selling house-baked Iraqi breads and pantry staples like giant tins of olive oil, date syrup and tahini, but eventually it also started offering lunchtime takeout. Fans of the catered meals craved a bite even when dining solo, owner Nidhal Sabah says. “If the taste is good, everybody talks.”

A few steps away at Ishtar, diners can also get grilled beef kebabs on rice or with bread, or get a single-sized portion of quzi in the form of fall-off-the-bone lamb shank on rice. The rice, dotted by the crunch of blanched almonds and brimming with the spiced juices from the lamb, is a showstopper on its own.

“It’s the most Iraqi dish. At our parties, we always have lamb,” said Basmel Al-Saad, whose family started the catering business almost a decade ago. “It’s slow cooked, we leave it for five to six hours and we cook the shank the same way we’d cook the whole lamb. This week we cooked 22 whole lambs. My mom makes the spices, we call it seven spice, what’s in it is a secret.”

Originally from Baghdad, the family owned a few restaurants when they moved to Jordan in the early ’90s. When they came to Canada, they decided to keep up with the restaurant tradition, even though each member of the family is an engineer.

The catering business and production kitchen was the first to open (the offerings are posted online ), followed by a retail shop further west just off Winston Churchill Boulevard to sell Ishtar’s line of packaged frozen foods including kibbeh. Right before the pandemic hit, the family opened a fast casual takeout spot called Canteen in Oakville, serving salad bowls, stuffed samoon sandwiches and their take on burgers (yes, there is a menu there).

Places like Tanoor and Ishtar exemplify how good word-of-mouth can keep a business going for years.

“All of our locations are extremely busy,” said Al-Saad. “We have so much good food, I can’t fit it all on one menu.”
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