3257 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 235-3277, tarboushbistro.com. Lunch and dinner daily.
If you’re in the Lebanese restaurant game—and a dozen or so places in Portland are—you should nail your pita. Those puffs are always the first impression, and they hang around throughout the meal to be used as scoops for tabbouleh and fava beans. And yet too many local Lebanese restaurants mangle it, serving pale and underbaked dough rounds with all the character of decrusted Franz slices.
Southeast Hawthorne’s TarBoush does pita, and pretty much everything else, right. You’ll get a lot more food at a lower price at Nicholas, sure, but if you’re eye is on high quality, this is where you want to be. The bread at this converted Victorian house is kissed with brown crispiness on the outside while remaining pillowy within. You’re going to use a lot of it with the vegetarian mezze platter ($12). So order mint tea or choose from a long list of Lebanese wines and settle in for a platter of unusually thick hummus, acidic tabbouleh and two falafel balls lightly fried to remain pleasantly chewy.
Even though you won’t finish another appetizer, you’ll also want the TarBoush foul moudamas ($8.50), a house special of plump fava beans served in a tahini sauce so good you may want to eat it like soup.
Kabobs of beef, chicken and lamb are marinated, char-grilled and served on skewers over a bed of soft basmati rice laden with pine nuts. The beef is unusually lean with a nice herbiness. On the side, you get tart tzatziki and a side of acidic red sauce to cut the richness. In warmer months, look for an outdoor hookah lounge where you can linger, puffing, sipping mint tea and using that glorious pita to scrape every last fleck of hummus off the plate. MARTIN CIZMAR.
Cedo’s Falafel and Gyros
3901 NE Martin Luther King Jr Blvd., 719-7344. Lunch and dinner Tuesday-Saturday.
Let’s cut to the chase: You’re at Cedo’s for the falafel. It’s crunchy on the outside, thanks to the coriander seeds that Cedo’s toasts whole and then subjects to a coffee grinder, and spring green on the inside from fresh parsley. You can get that falafel on its own ($6), on a plate ($10) with salad and some of the excellent, garlicky hummus, or wrapped in a warm pita ($8) with fresh tzatziki and tomato. The red-walled space, filled with Tanzanian Tingatinga paintings, jazz concert posters and flowers in repurposed tins of pickles, is inviting enough, but the counter service is no-nonsense. Note the sign: “Anything Extra Costs Extra. Thank You for Your Support!” REBECCA JACOBSON.
2921 NE Alberta St., 206-6148, darsalamportland.com. Lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday.
By default, Dar Salam has held the title of “best Iraqi restaurant” in Portland since opening in February 2012. It’s also Portland’s best Middle Eastern restaurant, period. Iraqi food riffs on the warm and easy recipes of the Eastern Mediterranean. Pita is steaming, plentiful and pleasantly yeasty. Hummus is butter-smooth and tahini-intensive. Baba ghanoush is extra smoky with a big paprika kick. There are familiar grape leaf dolmas, but try the Iraqi version wrapped in onions and stuffed with sun-dried tomatoes and pomegranate. A cool, creamy salad with yogurt and bright-pink beets is earthy but delightfully tangy. Beef, chicken and lamb shawarma plates are better than average, but make sure someone at your table orders the marga, a delicately spiced chickpea stew. Oh, and get dessert: baklava, date rolls and a little cup of Turkish tea. MARTIN CIZMAR.
SE Division & 50th Ave., 894-4605, facebook.com/IstanbulDelight. Lunch and dinner Tuesday-Sunday.
Turkish cuisine is wide, varied and largely made of eggplant. I ate a whole field of squash during my two-week trip to Istanbul over the summer. The doner kabobs ($7) at this cart bare no resemblance to such hearty Ottoman fare, but do have employ same sumac-heavy spice blend you’ll find in Turkey’s fast-food kabob shops. Thin shaves of crisp-edged meat are put on a compact pita with a little yogurt sauce and served alongside hummus or a fantastic little coban salad ($3, tomato-cucumber-dill-onion-lemon juice). The only thing missing? Hot Turkish tea, drank by the gallon through many, many tiny glasses. MARTIN CIZMAR.
3223 NE Broadway and other locations, 445–4700, nicholasrestaurant.com.
The service can be efficient to the point of inattentive, but when you have piping-hot, parachute-sized pita served on little stands, super-smooth hummus and a Denali of beef shawarma ($13.50) on an Everest of saffron rice that’s a little gooey yet very flavorful, you can get away with this. So what if the pita is underdone and the mezze plate’s ($12.75) tzatziki sauce tastes like straight lemon juice? The grape leaves are fresh, there’s killer kafta kabobs loaded with sumac and parsley, and no other restaurant in Portland can serve you this amount of palatable food for this price. MARTIN CIZMAR.
1318 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 235-1254, riyadhsrestaurant.com. Lunch and dinner daily.
This low-profile Southeast Hawthorne restaurant is a surprise favorite. Walk past a wood-fired oven and into the dining room, where you should expect to spend at least an hour. Start with fattoush salad with croutons of fried pita and a sumac-intensive dressing. Pita is baked long enough to develop the satisfying early stage of crustiness. Falafel balls are extra dark inside and out. Tabbouleh is finely chopped and loaded with bulgur. The best thing on the table was a fresh-baked spinach roll filled with braised spinach leaves and served with two mini stuffed grape leaves and a dollop of creamy, fragrant yogurt sauce. After that, a plate of beef shawarma slices more like gyro meat is almost an afterthought. MARTIN CIZMAR.
Wolf & Bear’s
3925 N Mississippi Ave., 453-5044; 113 SE 28th Ave., 453-2872; SW 10th and Alder, 810-0671, eatwolfandbears.com. Lunch and dinner daily (lunch-only downtown).
Israeli cart Wolf and Bear’s has inspired near-fanatical devotion among the city’s vegetarians for its beautifully spiced and parsley-stuffed falafel and its pita sandwich’s perfectly balanced blend of pickled, hearty, creamy and spicy. What’s a wonder is this balance is achieved amid such excess. The breakfast staple Sabich is a mess—and here I quote the menu–of “hummus, mango pickle purée, sliced hard-boiled egg, grilled eggplant, diced onion, cucumber & pickles, freshly cracked pepper, parsley and salad greens topped with tahini sauce & olive oil on a warm pita.” Only thing missing is the masterful falafel. Tack on two for a buck-fifty extra, and voila! Masterpiece. MATTHEW KORFHAGE.