Eye of the Shawarm

Searching for Portland's best Lebanese mezze platter and shawarma plate.

If you want great Lebanese food, you need to go south and east. Not too far—but the best places I found in trips to nine local Lebanese restaurants were both on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard. The two worst, coincidentally, were both on Southwest Stark Street.

It all began because I wanted Portland's best hummus. I asked a half-dozen people where to go and got a half-dozen different opinions on the city's best Middle Eastern fare. I decided to start with Lebanese.

At each, I ordered a beef (or, when unavailable, lamb) shawarma and a vegetarian (not vegan) mezze platter to split. I allowed servers to suggest their favorite side dish as a wild card. Our cheapest meal was $36, the most expensive $46. Portions ranged from merely ample to ginormous. Quality varied—more than expected. Here are nine local Lebanese restaurants ranked from first to last.

1. TarBoush

3257 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 235-3277, tarboushbistro.com.

Tags: best, perfect pita, patio, hookah, foul moudamas, wine list.

Lebanese restaurants need to nail their pita. Those puffs are always the first impression, and yet too many locals serve pale and underbaked dough rounds with all the character of decrusted Franz slices. TarBoush does pita—and pretty much everything else—right. The bread at this converted Victorian house is kissed with brown crispiness on the outside while remaining pillowy within. Order mint tea or choose from a long list of Lebanese wines and settle in for the massive vegetarian mezze platter ($14), which includes unusually thick hummus, vinegar-heavy acidic tabbouleh and two falafel balls lightly fried to remain pleasantly chewy. Even though you won't finish it, you'll also want the house's version of foul moudamas ($8.50), plump fava beans served in a tahini sauce. Beef shawarma is unusually lean but still flavorful and goes great with basmati rice laden with pine nuts.

2. Riyadh's

1318 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 235-1254.

Tags: dark horse, falafel, spinach roll.

This low-profile Southeast Hawthorne restaurant was 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 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.

3. Ya Hala

8005 SE Stark St., 256-4484, yahalarestaurant.com.

Tags: big menu, big portions, kabobs, underdone bread.

Ya Hala has been previously acknowledged as WW's favorite Lebanese joint. The owners of this cavernous Montavilla restaurant also own a very nice world foods store, do catering and teach cooking classes. Maybe they're too busy, because it seemed to me that the quality has slipped in the past year. Pita are too often underdone pale puffs, hummus can be light on tahini, and tabbouleh can come out more like a half-chopped parsley salad. The menu is massive even by the standard of the genre, making it difficult to know where to go, but steer away from the greasy lamb sirloin shawarma served atop hummus ($12.75) and toward the grilled kabobs.

4. Nicholas

3223 NE Broadway, 445–4700, nicholasrestaurant.com. Other locations on Southeast Grand Avenue and in Gresham.

Tags: churn, ginormous, refills.

At Portland's most popular Middle Eastern restaurant I watched our ruthlessly efficient waiter work three tables without fielding a single special request or getting even one refill. He was friendly enough, but he never paused long enough for anyone to ask him anything. He's a remarkable talent and deserves the $30 an hour he probably makes at this tile-walled falafel factory. 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 way underdone, the mezze plate's ($12.75) tzatziki sauce tastes like straight lemon juice and the lamb pizza looks like cat food on a flattened hot pocket? 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.

5. Hala's

1203 NW 23rd Ave., 464-9222, halasgrill.com.

Tags: shawarma jerky, rice, Garden Burger.

Hala's is on the upswing. I've been to this little basement restaurant on Northwest 23rd Avenue a few times in the last two years without being as impressed as I was this month. Pita rounds are pizza-size and have a nice touch of char. Foul moudamas is very simple here, stewy fava beans left mostly to their own devices. Tabbouleh is a little too salady, in need of more marinading, and chalky falafel balls reminded me of freezer-burnt Garden Burgers. But shavings of beef shawarma ($11.95) were like jerky in a good way: chewy but dense with flavor and pleasantly salty. The rice here is very special—long grains superbly spiced with a Lebanese blend.

6. Habibi

1012 SW Morrison St., 274-0628, habibirestaurantpdx.com.

Tags: happy hour, grape leaves, potato bread.

There are two Habibi locations within a few blocks downtown. The location on Morrison Street seems to cater to a happy-hour crowd—signs advertise "All Day Happy Hour"—with a full bar, long wine list and a nice selection of beers (Chimay, Hair of the Dog). The grape leaves recommended by our server were excellent, not too sour and with a nice, toothsome rice and herbal sauce. Pita is flat and very yeasty, with a consistency like potato bread. The baba ghanoush tasted a bit like smoked pickle juice, and the falafel was terrible—chalky and overly salty. The beef shawarma had lots of onion and garlic, but the very plain rice was a lot like Uncle Ben's.

7. Yara

3928 N Mississippi Ave., 282-0145, yaralb.com.

Tags: fried cauliflower, nice patio, Secret Aardvark.

Opening at the start of the year on a strip of Mississippi Avenue that's dense with very average restaurants, Yara sits in a plaza plucked from a suburban development of "Tuscan" McMansions called Medici Villas or Trebbio. The server suggested an excellent fried cauliflower appetizer ($6.50). Soft, mealy falafel balls were above average and a small cup of tabbouleh was appropriately bright, but pita rounds were  undercooked, the hummus tasted vaguely sour and all the sauces were deeply flawed. The house salad dressing was overly smoky and the beef shawarma plate ($13) came with a plastic cup of hot sauce that tasted like a creamy version of the year-old Secret Aardvark in your break-room refrigerator.

8. Karam

316 SW Stark St., 223-0830, karamrestaurant.com.

Tags: problems

Only a block away from Al-Amir and in the same building as Huber's (with which it shares a bathroom), once well-regarded Karam has minor problems with everything from service (the mezze platter came five minutes before pita) to atmosphere (loud club music banging away midweek). The food, too, has a litany of problems. The salad dressing tasted like straight white vinegar, the pita bread was so undercooked it smelled like raw flour, and undercooked rice was hard and grainy. The best things we had were plates of hummus and baba ghanoush that were thin but otherwise unremarkable.

9. Al-Amir

223 SW Stark St., 274-0010, alamirportland.com.

Tags: belly dancing, bags, lamb.

We showed up to downtown's Al-Amir on a busy Friday night. It's an inviting brick-walled room with a full bar and a very personable waitress who hugs the regulars. Unfortunately, there's a lot missing. This was the only restaurant where we found pita that was not housemade—it's delivered from a bakery a few times per week. Our tabbouleh tasted mostly like tomatoes, and fluffy hummus was light in flavor. Our drinks came 10 minutes after the appetizers, and it was hard to have a conversation over loud music played for a belly dancer working for tips. The salad was the best thing served, with a dressing that's creamy but citric. Lamb shawarma was the worst—small, fatty pieces of meat more fitting for stew. 

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