By Thom Hilton
In 2021, Nicholas—one of Portland’s oldest Lebanese-Mediterranean restaurants—moved from its flagship location on Southeast Grand Avenue to a new, much roomier building on Southeast Madison Street. Now, after being vacant for a year, the original space has been rebranded by second-generation owner Hilda Dibe as Beirut Bites, a fast-casual concept with a bumblebee-yellow paint job that promises to supply some sunshine even during Portland’s gloomiest days.
As the area’s first Lebanese street food spot, Beirut Bites uses family recipes to encourage newbies and longtime Nicholas fans to engage with casual dishes rarely seen in Portland, the specialty being street pizzas ($12) prepared in a 700-degree oven that the Dibes imported after they arrived in the States in the early 1980s to escape the Lebanon War.
There are five varieties of pies, including the Shatta, which has a flaky, tender crust topped with fermented red chile paste and a blend of imported Lebanese cheeses. The dish may look like a standard cheese pizza, but the addition of grilled onions, sesame and cumin give it an unexpected dimension.
The Areyess, a stuffed pita served alongside a tomato-and-chickpea soup, is like a calzone colliding with a birria taco. It also has all of the makings of a signature dish: a brown, crispy crust, rich and cheesy interior, housemade lamb sausage, and a sweet, spicy broth for dipping. During my visit, some diners who had just finished a yoga session scarfed theirs down, insisting it would become a post-stretching ritual.
The setup at Beirut Bites is simple: Order at the counter and watch your meal be prepared through an open window to the kitchen. A large mural on one wall that reads “I Dare You to Bite Me” over and over is playful, if a little confusing. Tables inside are pretty quiet, while the few out on the sidewalk are subject to the bustle of Grand Avenue traffic. Preordering is available, and it definitely feels like an ideal place to stop for lunch on the go.
Most dishes are served with pita chips, which are not to be ignored. They’re one of the most compelling new bites in Portland: three strips of flatbread rolled into tight pinwheels placed on a skewer, deep fried and then topped with cilantro harissa. More than just a snack, they’re an incredibly executed savory pastry—a textural delight packed with salt and spice from the fermented red chile sauce.
Another common accompaniment is plain hummus, which has a pleasant smooth texture but is a bit too tahini forward and lacking salt and lemon. Instead, opt for a side of the muhammara ($7), a standout roasted red pepper and walnut hummus that’s smoky, rich and full of paprika.
Bowls ($16) can be served with a basic romaine-and-tomato salad, tender vermicelli jasmine rice, or a mix of both. Meat options, in general, outperform their vegetarian alternatives. The chicken shawarma (juicy thigh pieces spiced with ginger, cloves and nutmeg) was great with creamy garlic toum, and superior to the underseasoned cauliflower, which was paired with some pretty rough-skinned eggplant.
Wraps ($16) are best avoided for now. The lamb gyro was tasty, but the falafel had an overpowering aromatic flavor and gritty texture. Both were clumsily constructed, the interiors overloaded with red cabbage, which meant usual star ingredients like cucumber, feta and tzatziki were lost in the jumble. The sesame garlic pita, while great in chip form and as a vehicle for hummus and pizza, felt too thick and soft for wraps, making it challenging to eat.
Desserts ($6) could also use some improvement. The pistachio butter cups have a great cardamom flavor, but the too-thick chocolate exterior wasn’t tempered properly, and one bite caused the whole thing to shatter. Baklava cigars also had a chocolate shell that fell off after one bite, and while crispy and sweet, they lacked that syrupy stickiness that’s crucial to truly transcendent baklava.
Both specialty drinks ($6.50) should count as desserts and be ordered instead, as both have the potential to become cult classics. The chocolate iced Turkish coffee gets a decadent puddinglike texture from tahini and oats. While the lemonada, a refreshing slushy of crushed ice, lemonade, mint and orange blossom water, is so good I’d never be able to pass it up when in the neighborhood.
I’ll continue to look forward to that lemonada when I need a cold refreshment on a hot day or, more likely, when I need to be mentally transported to a Mediterranean beach while facing another day of Portland’s endlessly gray summer.
EAT: Beirut Bites, 318 SE Grand Ave., 503-500-5885, beirutbitespdx.com. 11 am-8 pm Monday-Thursday, 11 am-9 pm Friday-Saturday.