Dining Out on Chinese in Baghdad

The people of Baghdad are by now quite used to hearing how much better their life has become in the city since the surge of U.S. reinforcements in the spring.

Along with the self-imposed cease-fire by the Shiite militias, and the so-called Awakening movement of disaffected former Sunni insurgents who have turned against al Qaeda, the overall level of violence is down by 60 percent, according to the U.S. military.

But there is now another sign that things are getting better in the world's most dangerous city. Baghdad has its first Chinese restaurant.

It's pretty easy to miss, located in a large hole in the wall on a tiny street off a busy thoroughfare in the upscale Korrada district. Its owners are three Chinese steelworkers — a Mr. Wu, Mr. Chi and Miss Yang — who were laid off from their jobs in Hubei province in Central China. They're not related. Each has a spouse and a child at home. Incredibly, they thought that a restaurant in Baghdad was their last chance to make money.

They don't speak Arabic or English. An Iraqi boy waits on tables and somehow manages to communicate with them. Their customers seem very satisfied.

"Actually their food is very clean and cheap," said a man identifying himself only as Abbass. "I come here a lot, sometimes every day."

There's no menu so I had the bright idea of calling ABC's Beijing bureau to find out what it could serve me. I passed the phone to Wu, who was wearing a black-leather bomber jacket.

A stream of rapid-fire Mandarin Chinese poured out of him. In spite of years of experience eating in Chinese restaurants around the world, I didn't recognize a single word, not even chow mein, won ton or sichuan.

ABC's Beijing producer, Chito Romana, translated. Basically he had chicken and carrots, fried rice, mutton meatballs and dumplings.

"Tell him I'll have the dumplings," I said and handed back the phone to Wu.

Chi and Yang sprang into life in the kitchen, which consisted of three gas burners and a small counter in a space about three feet wide, smack in the middle of the restaurant. On the counter were stacked several large trays of food, some of it hard to identify.

Flames leapt out of a large wok, which the partners had brought with them from China, as Yang fried something with a flourish.

I got up to have a look. "Ah, you've got a wok," I said to Yang. "And for you this certainly is a wok on the wild side, isn't it?"

Fortunately she didn't understand that a pun is the lowest form of wit.

In the meantime there was a fairly steady stream of customers coming in and out of the restaurant, all single working men.

"Chinese food is delicious and clean," said Thirquam, who works nearby.

"I eat here every day," said Mohammed. "It's delicious. I like it very much."

I went back to my plastic table to wait for my dumplings, as my neighbors Mohammed, Thirquam et al were served a succession of dishes. On the walls were posters of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, and photos of the restaurant founders on the Great Wall in China, with an Iraqi man who I learned later was a friend. He set them up here, now that Baghdad has become a little less lethal.

A plate of gray dumplings the size of tennis balls was finally placed in front of me. "Is that COOKED?" I say, with alarm. The plate was whisked away before I could find out.

The restaurant has been open for two months now without any trouble so far from militias or criminal gangs or anyone wanting to shake the partners down for protection money. Neighbors helped paint the sign outside, which says "Food the Chinese Way" in Mandarin and in Arabic. Their Iraqi landlord, who rents the tiny space to them for $200 a month, says they'll never be kidnapped. "They're too poor. They're not worth a ransom," he said.

My neighbors slurped up some rather tasty looking soup as I grew really quite hungry. The server advanced toward me with a dish, then swerved and placed it in front of another customer.

"I guess if you order via Beijing you have to wait a little longer," I said to my crew.

Finally a plate of edible food was placed in front of me. It was actually what I'd ordered. Dumplings, the size of croissants. Filled with mutton in place of pork, since it is understood that this is a Muslim country where pork is forbidden. Along with mutton meatballs and a plate of chicken and carrots, the bill was 1,000 dinars, which is less than 50 cents.

Wu, Chi and Yang say they will stay in Baghdad as long as they're making money, and as long as it's safe.

For the war-weary Iraqis, the very existence of this tiny Chinese restaurant in Baghdad is a good omen.

What's more, the food really is delicious.