Gather the Family for Iraqi Cuisine at Salt & Pepper Restaurant in Northwest Columbus
The name Salt & Pepper undersells this year-old, family-owned Middle Eastern restaurant, which offers large portions of flavorful fare from its spot in a Bethel Road strip center.
First, the bread.
At this family-owned restaurant, Ohood Shnawa slaps a chunk of dough between her hands before stretching it out over a kind of pillow. Then comes the tricky part: She leans over the hot tandoor oven—and its flames—and, using the pillow, slaps the large circle of dough against the oven wall. It sticks there for maybe a minute, beginning to lightly bubble and brown. Shnawa then reaches in with her bare hand to remove the freshly baked Iraqi flatbread, called khubz tannur.
Hailing from Baghdad, Shnawa’s family moved to Turkey for several years because of the security situation in Iraq. “My dad actually owned a bakery and two restaurants in Iraq,” says Shnawa’s son, Tahsen Aldulaimi, a senior in high school. Now, his brothers, Ali and Ibrahim Aldulaimi, run Salt & Pepper in the same area where they’ve lived since immigrating to the U.S. in September 2016.
Dining at Salt & Pepper can be full of surprises. The first is that on two lunch occasions, the restaurant was nearly empty. Business picks up during dinnertime, Tahsen says, and especially in the evenings during the month of Ramadan (March 22 to April 21 this year), when customers are breaking their dawn-to-sunset fast.
Portions are a surprise, too. Of the grill entrées, the restaurant’s Iraqi kebabs are a standout, featuring a mixture of ground lamb and beef with onions and spices. Order them on their own ($24.99) or as part of the mixed grill platter ($24.99), with Iraqi kebabs, beef tenderloin and chicken kebabs, grilled tomatoes and onions. The sticker shock subsides when the server brings you a complimentary bowl of soothing lentil soup followed by a huge plate of that still-warm khubz, meaning “bread” in Arabic. The blistered khubz is perfectly chewy and served with two dips: a fantastic baba ghanoush and jajik, made with cucumber, mint and yogurt. The prices are more than reasonable given the portions.
Flavorful chicken shawarma, cooked on a rotating spit, either comes on a platter with rice ($19.99), on a bed of hummus ($10.99) or in wrap form with fries (called saj on the menu, $9.99). Beef shawarma is also available.
I hope to return to Salt & Pepper for grilled fish served the “Iraqi way” ($10.99/pound). Known as masgouf, a butterflied fish (usually carp) is marinated (traditionally with lemon and tamarind) and grilled over an open fire. Considered the national dish of Iraq, masgouf takes at least two hours to prepare, Tahsen says, so it’s best to order ahead. Indeed, this Bethel Road restaurant is certainly more complex than its simple-sounding name would suggest.
Salt & Pepper Restaurant2550 Bethel Road, Northwest Columbus, 614-372-5030
This story is from the April 2023 issue of Columbus Monthly.