When Ayob Metry and Nadia Gomaa worked together in the prepared foods department at Whole Foods in Ashburn, they would regularly challenge each other to see who could make the best koshary, that carb-heavy bowl of elbow pasta, vermicelli, black lentils, white rice, chickpeas and fried onions somehow held together with a slow-cooked tomato sauce with the faintest reverberations of garlic and cumin.
They would then ask others in the department to pick their favorite. Sometimes Metry’s version won, sometimes Gomaa’s. Yet it was an unusual competition in the sense that, while Metry or Gomaa might claim victory on a particular day, the true winners wouldn’t reveal themselves until months later, in 2019, when the Egyptian natives combined their talents to open the King of Koshary in Arlington.
The winners are you, me and anyone who pulls up a sky-blue slipcovered chair at this shopping center storefront to order the koshary. Because the koshary here is not a family recipe. It’s not a copy of a copy of some famous version found on the streets of Cairo. It’s a bowl whose components and condiments — some crafted by Metry, others by Gomaa — were fine-tuned over many months by two chefs who pushed each other to create a first-class koshary in the suburban corridors of Washington.
So while the name of the restaurant might imply that one person has dominion over the dish, the truth is this koshary is a combined effort. As Metry told me one evening on the phone: “We are a kingdom. There is not a king. It’s not only me. It’s not only her. It’s all of us.”
One evening, I invited a friend to enter this kingdom in Northern Virginia. To the best of his recollection, he had never tried koshary before, and I could almost feel his disappointment when the bowl of dry ingredients — a kaleidoscope in shades of brown — was plopped on the table. I suspect this is not an uncommon reaction for first-timers. Unadorned, the dish looks as if someone randomly pulled ingredients from the bulk bins at Whole Foods. Which is partly why I asked our server, Gomaa’s son-in-law Marwan Mandour, to dress the dish as he would eat it at home. I wanted to make sure my friend had the real experience, not one pulled together by some American tourist like me.
Mandour took the accompanying bowl of tomato sauce, its surface shimmering with drops of good olive oil, and proceeded to dump its entire contents into the koshary. He then unscrewed the bottle of shatta — a housemade hot sauce infused with cayenne and paprika — and saturated the koshary with the crimson condiment. He finished with a long pour of dakka, a garlic-and-white-vinegar sauce that allows this dish, so tied to the earth, to reach for higher ground. Mandour stirred everything together and let us at it.
There are, perhaps, only a handful of moments in our eating lives that make us see a dish in a new light. This was one. Unlike my friend, I have had and enjoyed koshary numerous times. But King of Koshary’s version was different. I hit a kind of bliss point that words cannot capture. The condiments enveloped these grains and legumes, providing heat and aroma and order, but that alone didn’t explain my reaction (or that of my friend, who was pounding down that koshary by the spoonful). The dish reminded me, all over again, of the genius of necessity. Koshary, often called a “plate of the poor,” is further confirmation that a rewarding meal does not always begin with expensive ingredients. Paupers can eat like princes, for a small fraction of the cost, without any sense of self-delusion.
Metry and Gomaa come from different parts of Egypt. Gomaa grew up in Alexandria, a port city rich with history and culture. Metry is the son of farmers who raised animals and crops on a piece of land near Sohag in Upper Egypt, one of the few fertile spaces in a largely arid country. Both chefs channel their way of life into King of Koshary: Gomaa brings the seafood at the heart of Alexandria cooking, and Metry brings the farmer mind-set, in which almost every dish is created by hand from ingredients either pulled from the ground or raised on local pastures.
One of the finest dishes at King of Koshary is also, by Metry’s standards, one of the simplest: the half chicken with mulukheya, a kind of gelatinous soup simmered with molokhia, a leaf sometimes known as Egyptian spinach. The halal chicken, first poached and then finished in a pan until its skin is as taunt as a drumhead, made me realize how many truly tasteless birds I have eaten. This was chicken to the power of 10, every bite a reminder that modern agriculture has engineered the flavor right out of many birds. The mulukheya soup is made from the cardamom-infused liquid in which the chicken is poached, hence the reason the two dishes flock together.
You also need to dig into the seafood. Start with the cenjari branzino, a half portion of the white fish, its flesh smothered in a condiment of chopped onions, peppers and carrots pickled overnight in vinegar and lemon juice. The relish is not as overpowering as it sounds, its acid providing just the right contrast to the sweet meat of the branzino. The squid tagine — one of several tagines that cry out for attention — revels in the texture of its cuttlefish, the chewy pieces playing off the sweet insistence of tomato-onion sauce.
The tahini deserves special mention. Metry and Gomaa make their own from freshly toasted sesame seeds that are blended with cumin, oil and lemon juice. Nutty and gently tart, the tahini is irresistible, whether paired with pita bread or beef kofta over rice. The tahini also plays a central role in the superb ful medames on the brunch menu, making for a version of the stew in which the fava beans, still holding their shape, are buried in the creamy paste.
Gomaa and Metry take pride in their desserts. One Saturday afternoon, not long after plowing through a plate of crackly Egyptian-style falafel formed from fava beans, I asked Mandour what I should order as a finishing course. I had my eye on the basbousa, a golden square of semolina cake soaked in syrup, or even the flaky feteer pastry served with honey. But Mandour steered me away from the house specialties. He thought they’d be too heavy after my falafel and shakshuka (its eggs poached a beat too long). Instead, he suggested the cool, creamy, slightly sweet rice pudding. It was the right call, and in that moment, I felt totally nurtured, one more pampered subject in this benevolent kingdom of koshary.
King of Koshary
5515 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va., 571-317-7925; kingofkoshary.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.
Nearest Metro: Ballston-MU, with a short trip to the restaurant.
Prices: $1.50 to $23.99 for all items on the menu.