|Ya Hala, Brief Review|
|Overall||Service||Food Quality||Atmosphere||Vegan Options|
8005 SE Stark St
Portland, OR 97215
|Hours: Mon-Sat 11 am – 9 pm||Times Visited: 8|
Ya Hala Lebanese Restaurant has been among this reviewer’s top Lebanese restaurants in Portland for five plus years. However, because of the location I do not visit it as often as I would like and over the years the restaurant has changed a bit. Ya Hala is tucked behind Mt. Tabor in the Montavilla neighborhood on SE 80th and Stark, down the street from the historic Academy Theater.
The menu offers a large variety of entrees, some are unique to Ya Hala, but the majority of the dishes new Ya Hala diners would be familiar with. The menu is pleantiful with vegan options, which are clearly labeled on the menu, making this a great place to visit with both vegan and omni families.
The most common complaint about Ya Hala is the service. When entering the restaurant there is no vestibule, or waiting area -visitors are thrown into the center of the action without any barrier or buffer. Wait staff and busers are running around frantically and often forget who is waiting to pick up food to go, who is waiting for a table, and who is waiting to get on a list to wait for a table. It can be confusing, not to mention uncomfortable, to those who are seated near the door to be stared at and drooled upon by hungry patrons. Somehow it always works out, even if a party gets annoyed and leaves while waiting. If you are able to hold out and be seated, you will be rewarded with fresh baked pita bread which you will need for your next wait – food.
To start, select from the Humous, Baba Ghanouj, Tabouli, or Veggie Kibbeh to enjoy with the complementary fresh pita bread, or go for the Grape Leaves. While the menu does list these as vegan, it’s always good to remind the wait staff that you or your party is vegan. The Humous is very smooth and creamy, often with a bit more tahini than at other restaurants in town. There was a day when I would have fought an army to get to the smokey Baba Ghanouj, but those days are gone. The eggplant is no longer smoked before being blended into the perfect dip with a bit of natural eggplant texture. It is still good, with a tangy aftertaste, but does not stand out the way it use to, this is my largest disappointment with the changes.
The Grape Leaves are smaller than other restaurants around town and I have to wonder if they are no longer housemade, but from a can. Whatever the case, these little grape leaves are not only stuffed with grains but a lot of flavor and great Lebanese spice.
The pita is baked on-site and made fresh to order. The small pita is puffed up and served hot. Be careful because the steam can burn.
While a vegan could make dinner out of the abundent vegan appetizers, noted above, there’s no need because of the entree options. Check out the menu for all the options, but I recommend trying the following: Veggie Mezza, Eggplant Stew, and Stuffed Artichoke Hearts. All entrees come with a house salad. Unfortunately, I find the red wine and vinegar dressing to be too uncomfortably tart to enjoy.
The Veggie Mezza is a staple for any Lebanese restaurant and a great, consistent menu item to compare and discover your favorite. Ya Hala’s includes Tabouli, Homous, Baba Ghanouj, Falafel, Grape Leaves, and Aranabeet. This provides several small plates to sample, which is great for one very hungry person or two people with average appetites. The Mezza is the second place where the the lack of service really comes into play. If the wait staff only provide two pieces of pita, you may be waiting until the next batch comes out of the oven to continue eating your meal.
The Falafel is fresh and crisp, without being too greasy. I enjoy the green parsley interior, without a strong parsley taste. Aranabeet is simply noted on the menu as fried cauliflour with tahini. Frying vegetables without a breading is not very pleasant to eat as the oil slides off the vegetable and quickly down the throat. My stomach prefers grease absorption food, like bread, opposed to the acidic lemon tahini sauce for dipping.
While all the stews on the menu are traditionally vegan, the Eggplant Stew is my favorite dish offered at Ya Hala. I do not know how the eggplant is prepared, but it is firm and somehow tender, and almost flakes apart with a fork. The eggplant tastes as if it was marinated in the delicious tomato, garlic, and onion sauce in which it is served.
The Stuffed Artichoke Hearts is my second favorite dish. A plateful of tender artichoke hearts are stuffed with carrots, potatoes, summer squash, onions, and spices, then almost floated in a tomato sauce and topped with slivered almonds. The vegetables are cut into small cubes of the same size, and almost the same consistency. The onmni Stuffed Artichokes offers the addition of pinenuts which sounds delightful to round out the dish with an additional texture. This is all served with rice to soak up the tomato sauce. Again, I find the tomato sauce to be a bit too acidic and I’d prefer more of a garlic taste to accompany the dish.
The Fatayer is a small folded spinach pie packed with chopped spinach, onions, and an abundance of lemon juice. While I enjoy the fluffy, but firm dough, the lemon is too sour to really enjoy the spinach.
While I am a huge fan of Ya Hala for all the vegan options, the long line, acidic food, and waitstaff can deter me from making this the frequent destination location it use to be. And remember, once you try the food, all memories of the wait disappear. Do not let this sway you if you’ve yet to visit if you’re on the search for your favorite Lebanese restaurant. Ya Hala does provide ample room for large parties and just a few doors down is their store, the International Food Supply, which offers many Mediterranean favorites. When the store was within the same building it was a nice place to wander while waiting for a table. Other similar restaurants on the top of my list include Hoda’s and Arabrian Breeze.