treatise on the middle east

Gastronaut 5

Middle eastern food. (as usual, come up with something better)

I read recently in a well-known food publication that middle-eastern restaurants around the country have lost significant business in the post September 11th world. The article led with the story of two Iraqi restaurants in Queens that have chosen to recast their restaurants as “Mesopotamian cuisine” to try to deflect the anti-Iraqi sentiment that has taken certain parts of this nation. I find this all very depressing; why aren’t people skipping the French food? Freedom fries aside, French restaurants aren’t hurting.

I offer you, dear readers, a rundown of the Middle Eastern establishments I know. Go support good restaurants run by good people trying to make an honest buck, they all deserve our support.

A majority of the restaurants I have found are of the Lebanese variety, and whilst their menus are essentially the same, each will give you a very different experience.

Abou Karim (221 SW Pine): I do not understand the décor of Abou Karim. One could open a restaurant of any type in that space. Grey walls and dark wood tables; weird, grandiose but nevertheless uninspiring art and French early century liqueur and aperitif ads cover the walls. The Modern Jazz Quartet playing softly in the background put me in such a mood that before the menus arrived that I almost expected to order hazelnut crusted salmon with an appropriate Oregon Pinot Noir.
The food was excellent, but short of amazing. The hummus was heavy on the lemon, which is a refreshing divergence from the norm. The baba ghannouj was light, and, while a little light on smoky flavors, delicious. The falafel were held together with bread crumbs and tasted a little like, well, stovetop stuffing. A dining partner ordered lamb kabobs over couscous; it was delicious but tough.
There are two major problems with Abou Karim. One is what I like to call the ambiance tax. There is an extra $1-3 on every dish just to be downtown. I wouldn’t mind if it had been mind-blowing, but $6 for a side of hummus is excessive. My second problem is the service. The owner was very nice to us, but our waiter was the biggest schmuck I have ever had the displeasure of tipping. I asked him about the ingredients of a dish, and he took the menu out of my hands and read me the description.

Nicholas’ (318 SE Grand ave): Nic’s is the patriarch of a trio of family restaurants in southeast: Nic’s, Hoda’s and Ya Hala. Nic has long retired, and his daughter now runs the restaurant. Her brother owns Hoda’s and Ya Hala is owned by her aunt and uncle. Nearly every person on this side of the river has been to Nic’s. Located on Grand, it is a prime location that keeps the 50 odd seats packed every night of the week. Be prepared to wait, outside, in the rain, and then have a problem finding a place to put your wet jacket.
Nic’s formula is simple: good food, and lots of it, and no dish over $12. I have never left without leftovers. I am not a fan of their baba ghannouj, which is overloaded with garlic and chemical-tasting liquid smoke. Nic’s has a tendency to overspice, which means you will be sweating out the garlic and sumac for days. I’m not saying that is a bad thing, but fair warning. The Shawarmas are consistent and tender, and their falafel are near perfect.
The service is hit or miss: one night the waiter dumped a whole glass of water on a dining partner’s lap, and didn’t comp us, apologize, or give us extra napkins; another night the waitress was so attentive that I thought she was coming on to me. She actually took the time to find her boss and accost her about what brand of olive oil they used on my request. I am also not a huge fan of the Lebanese techno-pop they seem to play on constant repeat.

Hoda’s (3401 SE Belmont): I don’t like it. Their hummus is overloaded with low quality tahini and is pasty enough to patch holes in your ceiling. It is dangerous to describe a restaurant by its’ garnish, but it seems appropriate with Hoda’s. Any and all food out of that kitchen comes with a piece of lettuce and a quarter of a tomato. C’mon, give it the old college try, will ya? Oh, and the last time I saw meat that grey was, well, never.

Ya Hala (8005 SE Stark): Ya hala is hidden on the other side of Mt. Tabor off of 82nd. Ya Hala has taken great pains to create an ‘authentic’ atmosphere with murals on the wall and haphazard swathes of paint across fluorescent lights. As weird as it sounds it actually works. Ya Hala beats out all of its competitors in the following areas: wine list (extensive), ambiance (the tables are actually well spaced, and the music is quiet, and appropriate), menu size (30% more dishes than everyone else) and overall experience.
Ya Hala will be happy to serve you the same meze or Beef shawarma you can get at every other restaurant, but they also offer Lebanese specialties that I haven’t seen elsewhere. The stuffed artichokes are transcendent in both the vegetarian and meat versions, the makaly platter of roasted vegetables is basically unspiced: the essence of a perfectly prepared vegetable is all that you need. The house-made lemonade is spiked with rose water, and delicious. John, the owner, is a sweet guy, and liable to remember you after 2 visits, months apart. Service is attentive, even when the place is overflowing.

edit/update: I have another restaurant to add to this column, which I had not the chance to visit before this column was published. Karam, which is also on Pine, is the upper-crust middle-eastern restaurant here in Portland. They have ambiance to spare, a wide ranging menu, which is much larger than any other restaurant listed here, as well as a reall drink menu and a well developed wine list. You pay more, but it is certainly worth it.