Growing up in Israel, I have missed good Lebanese food in Portland. While some places are decent (Nicholas, Hoda, El Amir, Abu Karim; yet to check Ya Hala; stay away from Garbanzos) I was missing the complete package. Karam is as close as it gets, especially if you follow these tips:
1. Try to get Tony, the charming owner, to give you some advice, and take care of special requests. Similarly, if his charming wife (yes; they are both charming) can find a moment out of the kitchen, she can be just as helpful. Make it clear to them that you are here for a non-Americanized Lebanese treat and they will take care of you.
2. Request the whole wheat pita. I usually prefer white wheat pita, but their thin version dries up too fast and the whole wheat is better. (The pita is made fresh on the spot so they have no problem with this request.)
3. Ask for the home made hot sauce/s. At a recent visit they had both a red one and a green one. Both were packed with flavor and not too hot to enjoy. Just dip the pita bread in the sauce and be happy.
The food is very fresh and just about anything is made from scratch on the premises. If they keep it up and do not try to cut corners in the future they are here to stay! Best to come with at least one partner; four persons group is even better. Eat family style and try a bunch of dishes.
For starter, try the MEAT MAZAWAT: A collection of small plates of: Falafel (really fresh; one of the best in town), Taboule, Homous, Babba ghanouj, grape leaves, veggie kebbe naye (the vegetarian version of this raw meat original), Labne, baleela, chicken, lamb, and kafta kebab (the kafta kebab is especially good). Thereafter you can order extras of your favorites a-la carte. If you are in the mood for soup, the spinach soup is very nice. The Foul Mudamas is the best I have had this side of the Middle East. Its not part of the Maza; either negotiate to add it or get it a-la carte.
Continue with some of the main dishes. The MEAT EGGPLANT STEW was wonderful. The LAMB SHAWARMA over rice was good (although personally I prefer the lamb a bit juicier). KAFTA KEBAB is great (a repeat from the Maza.)
Wrap it up with some good Turkish coffee and a Mamoule cookie.
They are open for breakfast too. If you are in the mood for a different day starter, try some of the unique dishes, such as: Tomato Farke (scrambled eggs mixed with tomato and garlic. Put some of that hot sauce on top yummy!) or Potato Farke (same with potatoes instead of tomatoes), or Foul Moudams (yes, you can have it for breakfast too).
The only minor gripe I have: They got to serve real middle east pickles not the local substitutsky. (A plate of good pickles, cracked olives, and pickled turnips will make me happy.)
The price is right. Two people can eat well for $20 or stuff themselves for $40.
[Karam; 316 SW Stark; Portland 503.223.0830]
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