Democracy may not be sweeping the lands of the souks, but for democratic eating in restaurants where there are more choices on the menus than on the ballots in Baghdad, you can't do better locally than indulge in the hearty feasts of the Levant, more commonly known as the Middle East. As chic as Thai and Vietnamese cuisines have become, Portland restaurant stoves are also bubbling with eastern Mediterranean cooking. Local Middle Eastern restaurants tend to feature the cuisine of Lebanon, and two of the best practitioners in town of these ancient dishes are Ya Hala and Karam Lebanese Cuisine.
Ya Hala, whose name is an Arabic expression for "welcome," packs them in nightly, for it's a casual place where the greeting couldn't be warmer, typical of the region's vaunted hospitality. Host John Attar regales you with tales of his native land, and he knows the food like a forester knows the cedars of Lebanon State Park. If your wait is lengthy, as ours was on a recent mobbed weekend evening, a well-stocked Middle East grocery store adjacent to the restaurant will keep you fascinated, even if you don't purchase the tempting figs, eggplant relishes, or tangy yogurts on display.
Among the cold appetizers, I love the makdous ($3.25), tiny eggplants stuffed with walnuts, garlic and chilies, then marinated in olive oil. The sensuous skins slide easily down the throat, accompanied by the crunch of the nuts. Among the hot mezza, the sambousak ($4.95) are glorious little crescent pies filled with ground beef and pine nuts and deep-fried to a delicious crisp.
There are numerous grills and stews, but Ya Hala's "signature" entrees stand out. One of the best is makloube ($10.95), a complex casserole with a layer of eggplant underneath and one of rice, almonds and braised lamb above (there's also a vegan version). Each tier reveals different textures, colors and flavors, and you literally dig into this dish to expose the various strata. But more amusing is moughrabieh ($12.95), which arrives in two bowls: one heaped with couscous beads and peppers, the other with shredded chicken and chunks of stewed beef, sweetened with nutmeg and onions. You go back and forth, all the while ladling a meaty sauce over your choice.
The famed kibbeh, a sort of glorified meatball, receives fine treatment here ($9.95). Ya Hala's version is made with a ground-beef exterior filled with more beef, pine nuts, and onions, then baked. This is triumphal Middle East cooking: moist, browned to a crisp, and jammed with intense flavors, the whole cooled down with garlicky yogurt. It complements the football-sized pita bread, which appears at your table with comforting predictability-and is great for scooping up sauces.
Karam Lebanese Cuisine is a smaller and somewhat more stylish restaurant. If you remember Rick's cafe in Casablanca, you'll feel at home in this dark, subdued, unpretentious spot. Among the 60-plus dishes are numerous authentic and unusual plates, providing some rare pleasures given the humdrum hummus shops that dot the local landscape. So begin with kousa mekle ($5.50), an interesting offering of grilled zucchini and lemon topped with garlic and parsley with a side of tahini sauce. It's a chance to try commonplace ingredients put to new, or rather ancient, use.
You won't find goat in many other restaurants, and seldom is it simmered in red wine to tenderize the tough old billy. But at Karam it's a luscious treat, much like lamb, and served with the usual suspects: bulgur, garlic and those ubiquitous pine nuts (goat bil tfeen, $18.95). The star of the menu is, surprisingly, a stew of okra in a tomato sauce topped with lamb ($12.95). Okra is perceived as a slimy, gummy vegetable. But in this dish its mucilaginous substances actually thicken the stew (no flour here) and the pod has a pleasing, smoky flavor and a rich pungency.
For pure poetry, the kind that whispers of veiled women lounging in desert pavilions, try the knafe-B-kaak ($4.50), its very name a promise of delight. It's a luscious, ambrosial melange of mozzarella and ricotta (the Italians, too, were in Beirut), mixed with farina and baked with a topping of pistachios and doused with honeylike syrup. In lieu of a narghile (Arabic water pipe), you could end this Lebanese reverie with the mud-thick Turkish coffee ($1.75). Then again, caffeine might break the spell. Better just request another order of baklava.
, 8005 SE Stark St., 256-4484. 11 am-9 pm Monday-Saturday. Closed Sunday. Credit cards accepted. $$ Moderate.
Picks: makdous, labneh, sambousak, kibbeh, moughrabieh, makloube, kenafe.
Nice touch: Ya Hala's adjacent Middle East grocery store.
Karam Lebanese Cuisine, 316 SW Stark St., 223-0830. 10 am-9 pm Monday-Friday, 11 am-9 pm Saturday. Closed Sunday. Credit cards accepted. $$ Moderate.
Picks: Fatayeer, makale, molokhie, goat bil tfeen, okra stew, knafe-B-kaak.
Nice touch: A range of dishes offered at no other Middle East spot in town.