2218 NE Broadway, 503-477-9521, chesapdx.com.
The eastside, paella-happy cousin of chef Jose Chesa's Ataula serves extraordinary ribs ibérico, with copious marbled fat and oregano-pimentón rub torched into delicate crispness, with only moist and smoky tenderness within. An equal playfulness of taste and texture is shot through the menu, from beet chips to housemade tonic straight from the sulfate—but the centerpiece paella remains inconsistent, with uneven moistness or char.
Mediterranean Exploration Company
333 NW 13th Ave., 503-222-0906, mediterraneanexplorationcompany.com.
Perched on the patio with a fragrant Turkish delight cocktail ($11), high above the tourist peons sweating it out on BrewCycles—yes, this is the life. Piquant touches like sweet cherries nestled in tart yogurt dressing of the bitter radicchio leaves ($11) and chunks of feta melting in the Greek meatballs ($11) show chef John Gorham's delight in contrast and attention to detail.
320 SW Alder St., 503-444-7813, darsalamportland.com. 11 am-9 pm Monday-Thursday, 11 am-10 pm Friday-Saturday. $$.
The downtown location of Dar Salam is both flashy and serviceably casual, a high-ceilinged hall in which every wall that's not tiled blue and yellow with lions and ancient temples is covered in a menagerie of artifacts and knickknacks representing centuries of Iraqi culture all the way back to Nebuchadnezzar. But there's nothing gimmicky about the food, far better here than at the oddly abandoned-seeming original Alberta location.
On either mezza platter ($11), the falafel is served in doughnut form—wonderfully crisp on the outside but moist and tender within, earthy with a lilt of herb. The hummus, meanwhile, is airy, frothy and delicate. The baba ghanoush is only lightly smoked so that the flavor of the eggplant blossoms beneath. The pickled mango, meanwhile, is a bracing surprise of tart fruit flavor. Among meat dishes the standard chicken and lamb meat skewers are well-executed, grill-kissed slabs—but the real treasure is the lamb shank served over an earthy, rich, sweet eggplant marga stew whose depth and warmth opens out to fill the entire palate, comfort fare as deep as any memory. Also, the shredded meat salad is a delight—tender spiced meat under sumac dressing on a bed of greens.
But the baklava…dear Lord, the baklava. It is light and flaky and glued together with fresh honey and roasted pistachio whose flavor seems impossibly deep, a nuanced layer cake of phyllo that puts the desserts of many fine dining restaurants to shame.
318 SE Grand Ave., 503-235-5123; 3223 NE Broadway, 503-445-4700; 323 N Main Ave., Gresham, 503-666-3333; nicholasrestaurant.com.
The three Nicholas locations (Grand is the best) are the Portland Lebanese spots for mezza-eating teens on their first real dates, families on a budget who've discovered that the fine Lebanese pizzas sate their children's need for the familiar and their own for the exotic, and for the lunch crowd jetting off with $8.50 or $9.50 lunch bowls of salmon kebab or lamb shawarma. Nicholas is, in short, the Lebanese spot in town that—after 30 years—always knows how to meet every possible customer halfway.
3257 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 503-235-3277, tarboushbistro.com.
An immaculate, expansive Victorian smack dab on the middle of the busiest stretch of Hawthorne, Lebanese spot TarBoush offers a hot Lebanese black tea with mint and sugar, the best dolmas ever—tart and spicy and sweet all at once—and first-class people-watching, not to mention an expansive and welcoming patio. This a no-brainer for an early outdoor dinner.
1986 NW Pettygrove St., 503-689-3794, gastromaniapdx.com.
Bulgarian-born Alex Nenchev, once a fine-dining chef on the Continent, is making what are almost certainly the finest gyros in town ($7), whether lamb spiked with jalapeño aioli or salmon doused with bright balsamic. For only $8.50, Nenchev makes a salad heaped with thick-armed octopus whose preparation betrays long years of mastery in cooking a cephalopod whose texture is tetchy for any chef. And the soft, stewed brisket, served in porcini sauce over polenta ($10.50) rules them all.
1037 NW Flanders St., 503-477-8237, zaatarpdx.com.
The Pearl District restaurant that bears Tony Karam's name is Karam-less—but Karam's famous hospitality can be found here in the Pearl, where every meal should include the manakish ($19.95)—a trio of fluffy, herbed and cheesed Lebanese pastries—alongside mezza featuring truly note-perfect tabouli and delicate falafel and tahini both, alongside an oversmoked baba ghanoush. Among meat dishes, favor the kafta.