Like many small restaurant owners, Husam Aljibouri is one of the hardest working people in the city.
The owner/operator of Ashur–which to our knowledge is Winnipeg’s only Iraqi restaurant–can be found in his restaurant in a strip mall at the Pembina-Grant Junction seemingly all day and night, as regulars trickle in and out at all times of the day.
He’s there in the morning peeling then hand-cutting the turnips and beets for his excellent pickle. He’s toasting then grinding spices imported from Iraq for shawarma spits, his tender half chickens, and long grain rice that is piled on high. He grinds his own meats, which he sources in large quantities from local All Natural Meats (it’s halal, of course), and is making hundreds of Iraqi breads per day (think a mix between pita and a gorgeous Neapolitan pizza crust) for customers who come to buy them by the dozen.
And he’s seemingly doing it all himself, all while charging a fraction of what he could given the amount of work that goes into each delicious dish, like the aforementioned chicken served on incredibly flavourful rice with salad, pickle, garlic sauce, and hummus for just $15—which could easily feed two.
“My customers come for quantity, quality and my price is very fair,” said Aljibouri, returning to our interview after serving two customers and filling a DoorDash order at 3 p.m.
“I give huge portions. But I don’t want to overcharge, as I know my customers have budgets too.”
Aljibouri, 47, is originally from Mosul, in northern Iraq. The restaurant’s namesake, Ashur, which was his wife’s idea, is the ancient Assyrian capital located just south of Mosul, which was his hometown growing up. His mother and brother still live there, while the rest of his family is now in Germany.
Ashur isn’t Aljibouris’s first takeaway joint, as he had one while living in Liverpool, England, which was, in his words, “crazy busy.” He moved to Liverpool in 1995, later coming to Canada in 2008—first to Winnipeg, then a brief stint in Calgary, and then back to our city.
“I had a cousin living here. He told me, ‘Winnipeg is good. Winnipeg is good for Middle Eastern Food. It’s good for shawarmas,’ said Aljibouri.
“He [my cousin] also told me Winnipeg is cold. But I never imagined that cold! When I arrived in 2008 in winter it was -37 or something. It was a lot, but Winnipeg has always been good to me.” Aljibouri met his wife Nagham Abid here, and the couple now has five kids, aged five to 15. She’s from Iraq too, and occasionally works at Ashur, particularly when they were first getting started.
Aljibouri opened Ashur on November 4th in 2021, which he admits was a hard time due to restrictions on dine-in because of the pandemic. But once tables were open again, word got out, and by February the place was steady.
Fast forward to the present, and he’s outgrown the space while still running the shop mainly by himself with staff support occasionally, all while garnering ever-flattering Google reviews that feature statements like: “dumbfounded over how tasty and delicious this meal is”; “Superb customer service… Their Iraqi bread is homemade and so light and tasty”; “Truly a hidden gem in Winnipeg. The food is beyond amazing!”
During our interview, which took place during what is normally a slow time for restaurants, between 2:30 and 3:30 p.m., business was steady. Everyone coming in seemed to be a regular, with Aljibouri often saying, “this guy has been coming in every week for over a year.”
One new customer was music promoter Greg Strempler, who had his first Ashur experience on Friday, and was now back for the third time on the following Wednesday.
What they are coming for—aside from Aljibouri’s affable demeanour—is some of the best, and most affordable, Middle Eastern plates in the city. The owner could easily add $5 to each item and customers would still consider the menu prices bargain.
The platters, which include spoon-tender half chicken or cuts from the shawarma, are where it’s at. Along with meats or falafel singing with spice, you get so many sides: pickled beets and turnips, super creamy hummus, more rice than you can handle and several sauces.
Plus, everything comes with that bread folded up in quarters, so you can load it up to make your own wrap.
“Right now, during Ramadan I will make 500 breads, because tonight when we break fasting I’ll be selling bread to everyone. Even Canadian customers! This morning I had someone drive in to pick up 20. And tonight I’ll be slammed [once fasting ends].”
The bread is such a hit that Alijbouri’s focus is to have it be the lead product in a forthcoming bakery.
“My dream business is an Iraqi bakery here, in a larger spot than this with everything very affordable. We’ll do the breads, but also sweets, shawarma and falafel. I have the full menu ready.”
For now, Aljibouri’s main focus is getting more staff. He has two new employees coming from Iraq, one of whom has a background in five-star hotels there.
“It’s been a good start here… But my dream remains that bakery, I just need a good spot. So, wish me all the best.”
Ashur is located at #19-584 Pembina Highway and is open Monday to Friday, noon to 11 p.m. (and often later), and Saturday and Sunday, 1 p.m. to 11 p.m. Find it on Facebook and Uber Eats. For takeout call 204.275.3939.