With few exceptions, Portland's Middle Eastern restaurants tend to be as uniform and predictable as the burger chains. Falafel, hummus, shawarma and baba ghanouj are the staples, while occasionally a desiccated stuffed grape leaf or an aged baklava slice may turn up to remind diners that there are worse things than predictability. The quality of this standard fare varies from place to place, but even the best of the falafel joints leaves an impression that the arid lands of the Middle East are a culinary desert as well--an environment so hostile to entrees that only five or six have been able to survive. Thankfully, Ya Hala, an ambitious restaurant, dispels these suspicions by offering a magnificent variety of delicious, homestyle Lebanese cuisine.
From the Arabic expression for "welcome," Ya Hala is aptly named. Its warm earth tones invite; its subdued lighting soothes; and its owners are genuinely friendly without being intrusive. Outside, its windows are decorated to resemble ornate tiled arches of the Ottoman Empire. Inside, a well-executed trompe l'oeil casts the eye to vistas of snowy mountains to the north and boats in a calm harbor to the east. Instrumental versions of songs by Egyptian icon Um Kalthoum play softly in the background, and full, luxurious blue drapes soften the immense windows. You'll notice that much time and attention (although not much money) has been devoted to ambience, and the result is an unpretentious, comfortable, welcoming space. Even if the food were average, this place would be worth a visit.
Lucky for us, the food is so far above average it is difficult to compare it to anything else in Portland. Although the menu encompasses more than 30 traditional Lebanese dishes, the staples aren't a bad place to begin. The hummus ($3.75) is a finely puréed, dense, creamy blend of tahini and garbanzo beans. It's subtly spiced with less garlic and lemon than usual, allowing a sweet sesame flavor to emerge. In contrast, the baba ghanouj ($3.95) is a feisty blend of smoky roasted eggplant and liberal amounts of garlic and lemon. Together, the two complement each other well, especially when eaten with the steaming-hot, freshly baked pita bread.
Tabbouleh, generally described as a salad of parsley and bulgur wheat, often tastes about as much like a salad as Tabasco sauce tastes like a soup. At some places, the parsley is wilted and bitter, and too much lemon is added to compensate. At Ya Hala, however, the parsley in the tabbouleh ($3.50) is fresh, sweet and not overpowering; lemon is used as an accent rather than a punishment. Grains of bulgur wheat, finely diced tomato and onion absorb the lemon juice; a little mint makes it refreshing.
The best appetizer I tried was the sambousak ($3.95), a cross between a calzone and a samosa, stuffed with juicy ground beef, onions, and pine nuts. The dough was slightly sweet and extremely pliant. As I bit into it, the pastry broke apart and dissolved on my tongue, eliciting a decadent thrill.
Ya Hala's culinary strength extends to main courses as well. The kousa stew ($6.95) creates a beautiful mix of Mediterranean colors with its tomatoes, baby zucchini and yellow squash. Lemon, garlic and mint mingle in the sauce to impart rich flavor and aroma to the vegetables and optional lamb. The sweet and savory squash has a satisfyingly firm and substantial texture, without being watery or crunchy.
Kibbeh, the national dish of Lebanon, is a mixture of ground meat (usually lamb, but here beef) and bulgur wheat that's pulverized and then baked with onions and roasted pine nuts in the center. In its traditional preparation, it is often too dry for Western tastes, but Ya Hala manages to skirt this danger, delivering an aromatic delicacy that is both authentic and accessible ($8.50).
Ya Hala also serves a few desserts, including the alluring kenafe--a creamy custard served warm and flavored with rose water--and four varieties of fresh baklava in a light, sweet syrup instead of the heavier honey found in Greek baklava.
Every dish I sampled was good, although there was some variation in quality. However, even the worst dish on the worst day was better than what you'll find at most other area Middle Eastern restaurants. Ya Hala rises above the rest because it cooks dishes to order; it prepares its hummus, tabbouleh, and baba ghanouj daily; and it makes pastry dough and pita bread from scratch. Maybe other Middle Eastern joints falsely believe that their customers would not be able to appreciate such a high level of commitment. They're wrong, of course. Just compare the forlorn emptiness of many falafel joints to the bustling business Ya Hala is doing, even on Mondays. Portlanders may not be particularly knowledgeable about Middle Eastern cuisine, but they appreciate great cooking when they taste it.
8005 SE Stark St., 256-4484
Open 9 am-9 pm Monday- Saturday
BYOB (pending liquor license) $ Inexpensive
: sambousak, pocket bread, makaly plate,
tabbouleh, kousa stew, and kibbeh