Ride Along is an occasional series where I head out with friends/acquaintances/strangers to share a meal at a restaurant that best embodies their home country's cooking. If you're an immigrant or first-generation Portlander and have a place to share, email me at email@example.com! (P.S. If you sound creepy and/or own the restaurant in question, I won't be returning your query.)
MOAYYAD KHOSHNAW is a badass. He's a civil rights investigator for the State of Oregon, drives with the swift assurance of a cop, tends an immaculate rose garden—and is the survivor of three wars and countless bullets flying inches from his face.
Khoshnaw is a Iraqi Kurd who served in both the Iran-Iraq War and in the first Gulf War, returning to assist the US Army in Operation Iraqi Freedom. He left his native country under cover of darkness when he learned Saddam Hussein's army was looking for him, arriving in Oregon in 1996.
Yet at the office, he's always the one with a deadpan joke. He's also infamous for organizing lunchtime trips to spots he likes. Ya Hala in Montavilla is most worthy, but TarBoush on SE Hawthorne is also acceptable (their rice is clearly cooked by a Lebanese person who knows what they're doing, he says).
In the Middle East, there's not much of a border between countries as far as cooking—no matter what side of the Tigris it's grilled on, kabab is kabab. So, even though Khoshnaw hails from Northern Iraq, it's a Jordanian restaurant in Vancouver that he claims as his favorite.
Petra House is located in a strip mall (because in East Vancouver, what isn't?), but the space inside is surprisingly charming: think draperies and soft Arabic music. We joined Khoshnaw and his wife Olga in a traditional booth, settling onto cushions on the floor in front of a large circular brass table.
"You're new here—I haven't seen you around," he said to the waitress, as she knelt to offer us a huge ornate pitcher and catch basin. She placed hand towels out for each of us, instructing us to wash our hands with fabulously fragrant rose water before eating, per tradition. The waitress said she was new and she was from Syria.
At this point, it's common for Middle Eastern people to ask about one's family. In this case, Khoshnaw said later, he knew not to ask, because he already knew the sad answer. "Ah, I was here first because my country got destroyed first," he said with a wry smile. They both laughed with humor tinged by tragedy.
Life, like the richly spiced cooking of the region, goes on. An Arabic tea ($2.90 a person) in a scalding-hot etched metal pot is sweet, herbal, and reviving. We sat back and let Khoshnaw order everything, starting with a baba ghanouj ($5.99). Almost everywhere else, this tastier cousin to hummus is served creamy smooth, but at Petra House, it's more textured, with visible cuts of green pepper and tomato.
Petra House has favorites like gyro, shawarma, and kafta kabab, but Khoshnaw went straight to the deep cuts in the house specials section (all $19.99). First was an absolutely monumental bone-in lamb shank, marinated overnight, braised, and easily surrendering to fork tines. It melded in with just-right saffron-tinted basmati rice, with depth from tahini sauce. Also up was a platter of mansaf, the national dish of Jordan, with tender lamb portions cooked in yogurt and spices—forming a gravy-like sauce that's exotic and deeply comforting all at once. It's all layered over rice and pita bread, which soaks up the gravy and holds it in a bready hug.
But the very best was the maqluba (chicken $18.99/lamb $19.99), a casserole of layered chicken, rice, cauliflower, eggplant, and potatoes. It's flipped over out of the pot (the menu helpfully explains that maqluba actually means "upside down"), and then topped with tomato sauce, yogurt, almonds, and pine nuts. Khoshnaw says he cooks it at home without potatoes or cauliflower, and slightly different spices. But Petra's version is already a winner: It's a complex blend of cinnamon, turmeric, and allspice, yet it remains resolutely savory, with a strong punch of black pepper at the end. I've already made Khoshnaw give me his recipe to try at home.
After some gentle ribbing about how uptight Jordanians get if any other country tries to claim the sweet cheese knafeh dessert as its own (and a very necessary to-go order of baklava for the next day's breakfast), Khoshnaw and his wife uncrossed their legs, bid farewell, and headed toward the house in the country they now call home.
Sun-Thurs 11 am-9 pm, Fri-Sat 11 am-10 pm.