223 SW Stark
After George Bush invades Syria, who do you think will be next? My bet is Lebanon. Its capitol, Beirut, is the site of many violent conflicts between Israel and the Hezbollah resistance. I sincerely hope that we never invade Lebanon, and I'll tell you why: Portland ("Little Beirut" to Bush Sr.) is home to a good number of excellent Lebanese restaurants. My fear is that military action against Lebanon could turn alarmists and militia against those restaurants, forcing a menu regime change.
Worry not, though; there is still time, so use it wisely to sample Al-Amir's menu of compelling regional cuisine. Executing Lebanese food is a particular challenge since there are so many "food foundations" (prepared items that make up the basics of a particular cuisine). For pizzerias it's cheese pizza, for a soup kitchen, it's the broth. Almost every Lebanese dish includes "food foundations" of pita, hummus, baba ghanooj, falafel, or tabouli. So in order to make a reasonable attempt at preparing decent Lebanese food, you first need to ensure that you can make all five dishes well.
On all counts, Al-Amir does an admirable job. The baba is smoky and smooth, the hummus rich and creamy with a strong tahini flavor. Their falafel has a mild kick, seasoned with that very pleasant blend of "seven spices," and it is cooked thoroughly but not over-fried. Al-Amir's pita is very tasty; the one drawback is that instead of serving it piping hot directly from the oven, they choose to prepare the pita in advance, so it comes to the table cooled.
The small pita letdown was thoroughly erased from my mind once I took my first bite of the vegetarian grape leaves ($7). I have a bit of an obsession with these little packets of goodness and I'm on an ongoing search for the best in Portland. In a merely decent grape leaf, the flavors of creamy tzatziki, sour leaves, and seasoned rice are perceived as delicious, yet utterly distinct, unharmonious flavors. In contrast, Al-Amir's grape leaves combine all three flavors perfectly, with the tzatziki cutting some of the sourness of the leaves, and the rice binding everything together.
My one real criticism of Al-Amir is that a few of their dishes come across like Americanized versions of traditional Middle Eastern fare. In these instances, it seems like the kitchen is simply being too shy with their spices; throwing more in would be an easy remedy. The beef shawarma sandwich ($6), instead of being a fragrant, exotic treat, comes off more like a regular steak sandwich. Mind you, it is an extremely good steak sandwich, just not particularly Lebanese. I had similar feelings about the lentil vegetable soup ($4), which, being rather heavy on the tomato, tasted a little too similar to a lightly seasoned American chili. And the last thing we need is an American invasion of Middle Eastern flavors.