To discuss Portland’s Lebanese food scene, you must start with the families that have been cooking here for over 30 years. Sisters Mirna Attar and Hilda Dibe have been in the kitchens at Nicholas Restaurant and Ya Hala since both restaurants opened decades ago. (Mirna also operates two locations of World Foods Portland.) Mastering recipes passed down from their mother and father, the sisters have grown their families, their followings and their businesses here in Portland over the years.
This story of multigenerational cooking starts with Nicholas and Linda Dibe, who immigrated to the U.S. to escape the 1982 Lebanon War. Settling in the U.S. wasn’t an easy transition for the family, and Nicholas — who had retired from a 37-year career with Air France due to the war — invested everything he had in opening Nicholas Restaurant. With no prior restaurant experience and a family to raise, the couple took a huge risk, banking on Nicholas’ people skills in the front of house and Linda’s cooking in the kitchen.
Opened in 1987, the original location on Northeast Grand Avenue struggled for its first three years. “Portland was not very culturally accepting back then,” says Hilda Dibe. “Lebanon had a really bad reputation. My parents put Greek food, pizza and calzones on the menu originally because they were very apprehensive about hate crimes.” Over time, the couple began slowly changing the menu and introducing Lebanese cuisine.
Hilda took over Nicholas from her parents in 1996, and has expanded to three different locations in Portland and Gresham.
Portland’s Lebanese Food Scene
A slow and steady approach seems to a key to this family’s success amidst the hustle of Portland’s food scene. Their menus all feature Lebanese food in traditional, modern, Mediterranean and American-influenced preparations. They also excel at accommodating Portland’s prominent vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free populations.
According to Dibe, there are three main dishes that must be perfected in a Lebanese restaurant. “If you walk into a place and their hummus, falafel and tabouli [are] not good, it takes away from the credibility of that restaurant,” she says. Along with these staples, customers continue to return to Nicholas for the platter-sized pita, which is baked in an oven Nicholas brought over from Lebanon, and the popular grass-fed lamb burger served halal with roasted red peppers, feta and tzatziki.
Across town in Northeast Portland’s Montavilla neighborhood, just east of Mt. Tabor Park, Ya Hala (which means “we welcome you”) has been a local favorite since 1999. John and Mirna Attar bought the business from two brothers who were running a Middle Eastern deli and grocery store out of the space. “I remember Mirna and I looking around the main room and saying to each other, ‘How are we going to fill this place up?’” John recalls.
John left his career in the printing industry to run the front of house, and Mirna, who had studied fine art growing up, left her father’s kitchen at Nicholas to become a chef in her own restaurant. Focusing on traditional Lebanese homestyle dishes, the couple built a community of regulars that fell in love with their food and their family.
“In Lebanese food, there is street food, restaurant food and homestyle dishes that each family cooks at home,” says Mirna. “Ya Hala combines most of these three in one menu.” The couple lists off a few favorite dishes: bamyeh, baby okra stewed in a tomato, cilantro and garlic sauce; makloube, a rice, eggplant and lamb shank casserole; and tajen, seared salmon in a lemon-garlic tahini sauce.
In 2015, Ya Hala introduced its spin on brunch, quickly named one of the city’s best brunches by Portland Monthly. Every weekend, eager patrons line up for chocolate halva croissants, house-smoked lamb bacon and spicy Lebanese breakfast sausage called sujuk.
Since Ya Hala’s regulars have become attached to their favorite dishes, Attar tries not to change the menu too often. Instead, she saves her more experimental recipes for the kitchens at World Foods.
With locations in the Pearl District and Southwest Portland, World Foods’ aisles are stocked with gourmet and specialty products, both local and international. The deli, which is reliably packed during the weekday lunch hour, serves hot and cold items. Offerings include chicken shawarma bowls, ahi tuna salads, poke bowls and savory baked and fried goods, like the traditional kibeh. Taking the shape of a tiny football, kibeh is a delicately hand-shaped croquette made with bulgur wheat, ground beef, sliced almonds and Attar’s own seven-spice blend.
“Not every Lebanese person knows how to make kibeh; it’s kind of hard,” says Attar. “But I remember the first time I learned. John’s aunt came from Lebanon, and she showed me how to shape it in my hand, and make the crust thin. Now, every time I show my employees at the three locations how to make kibeh, I remember her.”
A Family Affair
After decades of being both student and teacher in the kitchen, Attar shares her stories of food with a calm, wise smile. “Cooking is a tradition where you get it from every side of the family,” she says. “I’m happy to show it to Portland, and my employees. When I tell them they do something well, something better than an old Lebanese lady, they get so happy.”
The Attars’ children, Joyce and Pascal, help run all three businesses. When asked about her interest in cooking, Joyce describes the difficulty of making certain dishes and finding beauty in the tradition. “Some of our food is really laborious to make, so a lot of women would get together and spend an evening making this one thing together to keep each other company, whether it was rolling grape leaves or making kibeh. I remember watching that as a kid.” she says. “So you don’t just make dinner and eat it — it’s this thing you’re always around, and it’s a big part of the culture.”