"Mix 5/Iraqi Shish Kebab honors great country, cuisine

If you were opening a restaurant, what would you name it? What if you were serving a relatively obscure cuisine, at least by Indiana standards, in what was, by any measure, a humble strip of storefronts slightly out of view from major city thoroughfares? To complicate matters, what if that cuisine was from a country where we were currently waging a war?

That’s precisely the dilemma two enterprising Iraqi brothers had when they got the idea to open a market and restaurant serving the dishes of their homeland. They landed on Mix 5, a curious, perhaps misleading, moniker that alludes to the tight-knit fraternity of five brothers, out of eight, who are now in the United States. To honor the family, the name was perfect; as a tool for driving commerce, it didn’t exactly usher in the masses.

But things are looking up. Standing out in front of the new sign to the international foods market and kebab shop he operates with brother Nadhim, Fahim Alawadi, the gregarious front man for the business, throws his hands up and smiles in a way that says, “I know the name was sort of silly. But what else would we call it?” The revised sign clears up the confusion, making certain that the place is Iraqi-owned, not just a catch-all of Middle Eastern foods, as well as “The home of the best shish kebabs” in town.

It’s a smart move, one that seems to have improved business, as well as bringing these brothers closer to their mission to create a shrine to a culture for which they are the city’s most ardent enthusiasts. You can sense the frustration in Fahim’s tone when he admits that the Lebanese and Syrians get more attention for their cuisine, that few Americans know of the eggplant and okra stews served in Iraqi homes or the dazzling shish kebabs and unparalleled service in Iraqi restaurants. But there’s a buoyant enthusiasm in Fahim’s voice, and he’s a champion of the culinary skills of brother Nadhim, who at 15 was already perfecting kebabs in native Najaf, one of Islam’s holiest cities.

Thus, a meal in the modest back room of Mix 5, with only about 20 seats for diners, is as instructive as it is delicious. Despite our cultural insomnia, which too often views the Middle East through its recent conflicted history, Iraq contains the bulk of ancient Mesopotamia. If we believe this is the birthplace of civilization, surely Iraqis and their ancestors have had a lot more to say about food than we have. In every kebab, falafel sandwich or plate of baba ghanouj, Nadhim and Fahim are helping locals understand and appreciate a country our media and politicians have maligned.

Politics and history aside, this is a gem of a restaurant, definitely one of the friendliest places you’ll eat in Indianapolis. While many things will be familiar from other menus around town, the dishes and preparations unique to the kitchen at Mix 5 make clear just how unusual Iraqi gastronomy can be. Among appetizers, hummos is fairly standard, a bit lighter on the garlic than some versions. A sprinkle of paprika and tangy, aromatic green olives help. Baba ghannouj is another matter altogether. This is perhaps the city’s best, slightly sweet, with a roasted undertone and perfect balance of yogurt and tahini. The eggplant, Fahim said, which had traveled from that unlikely agricultural center, Detroit, cut just like butter. That it was recently roasted in house couldn’t have been more evident. Lentil soup is strikingly different from others, with a meaty foundation of lamb, the tang of lime and the aroma of cinnamon, among other spices. Pickled vegetables, special to Najaf, make a bracingly crunchy side.

There are burgers, hot wings and potato wedges, but Nadhim is right to nudge you, not so subtly, toward the kebabs. Combo platters offer either four kebabs ($10.95) or a whopping four kebabs, gyros and falafel ($17.95). Chicken and lamb kebabs are quite good, beef is perhaps a touch dry, but the Iraqi or “kifta” kebabs are some of the freshest and juiciest ground lamb patties you’ll eat anywhere, not mixed with beef or augmented with parsley or breading. These are a true taste of Iraq; many customers come only for them. Falafel, perhaps the only non-meat item, are some of the best you’ll have, perfectly crisp, well-seasoned and with a cool tahini sauce spiked with mint.

At night, you’ll likely get some table service from one of Nadhim’s adorable sons, who brought us a tray of baklava ($2) with a pair of tongs and left it for us to help ourselves. It’s not homemade, but it’s from a good bakery. We had to exercise some restraint with those tongs. The Alawadi brothers hope to introduce more authentic dishes, including traditional shawarma (rather than just gyros — though theirs are very tasty), some of those stews and special dishes for Ramadan, which began after sunset on Saturday. You certainly don’t have to fast, as Muslims do, to eat these dishes. Nadhim and Fahim wouldn’t let you leave hungry — or without letting you know how glad they are that you liked (and you will) their food.

Mix 5/Iraqi Shish Kebab

2989 W. 71st St.

317-298-5355

HOURS

Monday-Sunday 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m.

Food : Four stars

Atmosphere : Two and a half stars

Service : Four and a half stars

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