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F.C. Resident’s Road from Iraq to Area’s Popular Tigris Grill

tigrisgrillkebabs010In search of a better life for his daughters, Falls Church resident Mowafak Alshagra left his birthplace in Iraq and, via Sweden, landed in the U.S. 12 years ago. Upon arrival, he first settled in the Northern Virginia suburb of Oakton and later opened Tigris, a restaurant best described as a Middle Eastern grill.

 

 

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TIGRIS grill owner and Falls Church resident Mowafak Alshagra fans the flames over kebabs in the kitchen of his popular Oakton restaurant. (Photo: News-Press)

 

In search of a better life for his daughters, Falls Church resident Mowafak Alshagra left his birthplace in Iraq and, via Sweden, landed in the U.S. 12 years ago. Upon arrival, he first settled in the Northern Virginia suburb of Oakton and later opened Tigris, a restaurant best described as a Middle Eastern grill.

Cooking for crowds began for him at the young age of 18, when Alshagra left home to study mechanical engineering in what was then Czechoslovakia. Craving the food of his own culture, and unable to find any locally, he began cooking for himself at his school dorm.

An interesting thing happened. The more he cooked, the more people showed up to eat his preparations.

Soon Alshagra collected recipes not only from his parents, but friends as well, adding his own touches to the dishes. He ended school earning a Master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering and also the unofficial title of “Dorm Chef.”

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Alshagra in the kitchen. (News-Press photo)

Returning home to Iraq, he found his uncle needing assistance at his restaurant. Soon Alshagra became a full-fledged restaurateur. When his family moved to Sweden, he opened his own restaurant and catering business. In October of 1998, Alshagra, his wife Laheeb Alsarraf and their two daughters left Sweden for the U.S.

“We came to America to give our daughters better opportunities for their future,” said Alshagra. His wife Laheeb’s family lived in the Oakton area so they settled in northern Virginia to be close to relatives.

For a few years Alshagra’s brainchild of ready-made, vacuum packed and frozen falafel took off and he sold his product all across America. Though a hard-worker, the business he ran by himself took time, energy and a toll, so he sold the operation.

Embarking on a new path, he worked as a contractor with the U.S. government, which was seeking highly educated Iraqis to serve as advisors. Upon the contract’s completion, which required frequent travel away from his family, he returned to his love of food, settled in Oakton and in July of 2008 opened the Tigris Grill.

After living in various countries, Alshagra now speaks four languages fluently, including Arabic, Czech, Swedish, English and some German. He enjoys life in Oakton and especially its residents and patrons, who affectionately call him Mofi. “My customers are the best thing about our location. They’re very nice and they support my business,” said Alshagra.

The Tigris Grill is named after the river which bears the same name. Originating in the mountains of Turkey, the Tigris borders Syria and Iraq, and laps the banks of Baghdad, Iraq’s capital. “I have good memories with this river. I learned swimming there. I used to compete with my friends to swim across. There are great fish in the Tigris, as big as two meters long. It starts from the north of Iraq and ends in the south,” said Alshagra.

Alshagra worries about his relatives in Iraq and remains very concerned about their safety. He also fears Iraq’s loss of identity and culture. “I’m concerned that our sports teams will disappear. We were one of the best teams in Asia and the Gulf region,” said Alshagra. At one time Alshagra coached both water polo and diving and believes in the unifying influence of sports.

Football, called soccer in the U.S., is very popular in Iraq and acts to bring a fragmented people together, impressive in such a turbulent country. In March, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (International Federation of Football Assocation) known mostly as FIFA, lifted a ban on Iraq that excluded the country’s teams and officials from taking part in international soccer.

Normally about 10 percent of Tigris’ patrons are Iraqi, but that number jumped in March as Iraqis ventured to vote in elections at the polling center set up by the Iraqi government at the Hilton Arlington Hotel in Ballston. This marked their second parliamentary election since the expulsion of former President Saddam Hussein. “We had large groups who traveled here from other states for the election,” says Alshagra, who didn’t vote himself.

Iraqis who frequent the restaurant enjoy its friendly owner and appreciate the home-style cooking. “The most requested food is the kebab and the most popular drink is yogurt,” said Alshagra. The kebabs are cooked over 100 percent natural charcoal, not gas like at most restaurants. Dough for the huge bread is made fresh every day by hand and cooked on site. The falafel is Alshagra’s own secret recipe. As for the yogurt drink, it’s thinned with water, fresh with a salty finish.

Amongst the other 90 percent of patrons is John Lawrence, the Chair of the Falls Church Planning Commission. “Mofi’s our neighbor, a great friend, as is their entire family, including the dog. We were a test kitchen for him. He’d set up a grill that put out enough smoke to look like the whole block was on fire and we loved it. The smell was great and he’d call our son over and hand him a plate of kebabs. We would frequently burn our fingers on them because we’d eat them in the yard,” said Lawrence.

Lawrence attended Georgetown University, receiving a Bachelors Degree from the School of Foreign Service and a Master’s Degree in Middle East Studies. “I’ve been all over the Middle East and South Asia and his food is as good as any. Some is even better. I’ve never liked falafel anywhere, but I eat his by the bowl. The spice combinations in his food are fantastic. It combines Iraq, which is very different than the rest of the region, with the more traditional Levant,” said Lawrence. The only complaint is that he wishes the Tigris Grill was located in the City of Falls Church.

Alshagra is a welcoming presence and a great cook. In the end he says he wouldn’t return to Iraq, yet he retains fond memories of his homeland. “I miss summertime and swimming in the Tigris with my friends,” said Alshagra. And after meeting Alshagra and eating his food, customers feel less like patrons and much more like one of the many people he calls friends.

Tigris Grill is located on Chain Bridge Road in Oakton. For more information, call 703-255-5959 or visit www.tigrisgrill.com.

 

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