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Restaurant of the Week: Habibi

Everyone's 'beloved' at Lebanese cafe
by: KATIE HARTLEY, Tabbouleh, baba ghanouj and other Middle Eastern treats fill the meze platters while warm greetings fill the dining room at Habibi.

On gloomy early spring nights in downtown Portland, there's little foot traffic and the streets can look cold and empty. But you'll find a remarkably warm and animated atmosphere in the Lebanese and Syrian restaurant Habibi.

Particularly if you've been feeling forlorn this season, Habibi's vivacious owner, Mazen Khoury, might be just the ticket to shaking off the doldrums. Diners are greeted so warmly they'll find themselves wondering, 'Do I know this guy from somewhere?'

Habibi's location on Southwest Morrison Street once held Long Island Pizzeria but customers of that place will struggle to remember it. Instead of quick, counter-style service, Habibi has friendly professional staff with elegant and fun tableware and décor.

Meze platters are deservedly popular, served on oversize metal trays and available for vegans, vegetarians and meat eaters. All feature uncommonly good falafel that balances a crisp shell around a tender, crumbly interior, served in a puddle of tahini.

The tightly packed grape leaves burst with a tasty rice and beef filling for carnivores, and well-seasoned rice for the veggies.

The lengthy menu offers the Middle Eastern standards -kebabs, shawarma, hummus - with some twists. Several vegetable-based casseroles - eggplant, okra, artichoke heart - utilize a fresh and light house-made tomato sauce. It's delicious with the accompanying yellow rice. Lamb versions are available if you want more protein.

I especially like the lemony fattoush salad, a textural wonder with crunchy cucumber half-moons, salty olives, crisp romaine and chunks of deep-fried pita bread.

The single-size Lebanese pizzas are a great deal -most cost just $4.50, including the Phoenician, which is thickly topped with seasoned ground beef.

And if you're just not in the mood for pita, choose from the few Italian pasta dishes and some calzones.

The Habibi Web site prominently thanks Khoury's parents, who, he relates, came from Syria in 2005 to help him open Habibi, which means 'my beloved' in Arabic. They should be extremely proud in return. Their son has created a place people return to for the friendship as well as the food.

-Audrey Van Buskirk

1012 S.W. Morrison St., 503-274-0628, www.habibirestaurantpdx.com, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Saturday, $4.50-$12.50