Cruising Main Street in El Cajon, I spotted a sign with both English and Arabic script reading Nahrain Fish And Chicken Grill.
1183 E. Main Street, El Cajon
It's a small, sparsely decorated restaurant, and the first thing you're bound to notice is the glass cooler filled with whole fish: red snapper, striped sea bass, carp, pompano, and others, many of them large.
I'm accustomed to seeing cleaned filets in glass cases, so spotting tails, scales, and all got me curious. I looked for fish on the menu, found the Masgoof section.
Googling told me that, despite the fact Iraq has only a sliver of coastline on the Persian Gulf, this grilled fish masgoof (or masgouf) is "considered the national dish of Iraq."
Things move pretty slowly at Nahrain. I was there for an hour in the middle of the afternoon, and only one guy was working, taking orders and cooking them. When he emerged from the kitchen, I asked him to recommend a species fish, each priced by the pound at $7-12 per.
"That's only for a whole fish," he told me, shaking his head. "Too much for just one person."
Okay, the grilled fish is meant to be eaten family style. I would have to settle on the grilled chicken portion of the menu. Choice number two was the butterflied, whole chicken, Mosakhan, apparently a Palestinian favorite served with caramelized onions and seasoned with sumac.
"Ohhh," he told me apologetically, "That takes an hour to cook."
He was right, I was too hungry to wait an hour. I settled on a familiar Mediterranean order suitable for one: chicken tikka kebab sandwich and baba ghanoush: $5 apiece. Ten minutes later, I was eating.
If you want to know why I'm obsessed with baba ghanoush, visit Nahrain. This was perfect: garlicky, rich, and not too pasty, thanks to a little yogurt and olive oil. I'd return for this alone.
However, while I was sorry to miss out on those unfamiliar grilled fish or chicken plates, had I done so I might have missed out on the Iraqi bread, samoon. My sandwich consisted simply of skewer-cooked chicken, cucumber, and tomatoes — not even any sauce. However, cut into a fresh, warm, and tender samoon, I could not eat the thing without smiling. The chicken was tasty, but the bread made it work.
Recognizing my bliss, a regular customer at the next table suggested I could do even better by trying the $3 falafel sandwich.