written by Justin Fields photographed by Tim Sugden
As I write this article, I’m enjoying an exceptional Lebanese red wine personally selected by Moe Achour, owner of Al-Amir (223 SW Stark St.), Portland’s original Lebanese restaurant and remembering two remarkable dinners I had there this April.
Since 1993, Al-Amir has earned a reputation as one of the Northwest’s best restaurants, offering traditional, authentic Middle-Eastern cuisine, garnering honors and glowing reviews from Zagat and Bon Appétit Magazine, and earning a strong following of loyal customers that spans generations. There’s something special about this family owned place, and I was determined to find out what it was.
On my first visit, we intended to have our interview, but Al-Amir at 8:00 p.m. on a Wednesday was so bustling with groups of regulars that Moe could barely get away. Instead of our interview, Moe brought course after course of tantalizing traditional dishes for me to try. Moe and his staff were so attentive that I already felt like I was a regular.
On my second visit, I got my interview. We discussed food, family, and the business philosophy that has helped Al-Amir endure and prosper, despite pressure from an increasingly-crowded food scene in Portland. I enjoyed another decadent dinner,… and dessert,… and wine,…and went home with so much food I shared it with two families, and reconnected with old friends in the process. This place is special, and Moe was kind enough to open up with me about why.
Let’s talk about food first. What would you tell people who haven’t tried traditional Middle Eastern cuisine? Why should they branch out?
It’s just a simple and fresh type of cuisine. It’s Mediterranean food with things most people already love, like lemon, garlic, olive oil, fresh tomatoes, chicken, and lamb. Often the method of cooking is very simple too, like barbecuing. Fresh vegetables, all on the grill. No cream. A lot of people ask me, do you use eggs? No we don’t. Do you use butter? No we don’t. It’s all from some of the freshest ingredients you will ever taste. Our food is a lot like a home-cooked meal. It’s very healthy, and very delicious of course! We still use recipes that have been in my family for generations. That’s very important to me.
Can you tell me more about your family recipes, Moe? Were they from your parents?
No. They’re from my grandparents. Generations of our recipes have stayed in the house. Our mothers were really good cooks, and they learned by their mothers, and their mothers learned by their mothers before them. So now we just continue to use those family recipes and serve them to you at Al-Amir.
I know family is important to you. Can you talk a little bit about your family and where you come from?
We’re from Beirut, Lebanon. I was born and raised there. We moved to the states about 35 years ago, after following my uncles here. We had a couple stores and grocery/delis in Corvallis and the Beaverton area. Then we came to Portland and opened Al-Amir. It has become a very well-known and respected restaurant here in Portland. We’ve been here for 23 years now in the same location.
What’s your secret to that kind of business longevity? There are a lot of dining options in Portland…
I buy everything local, and no trucks or big food supply companies drop off any food here. I go in my car or the catering van and buy all local stuff myself. There is no canned food at Al-Amir. All my vegetables come here from local farms. It’s all very fresh. When you’re buying fresh vegetables, fresh chicken, fresh lamb, fresh beef, fresh ingredients, fresh everything, that shows in the food. It’s a lot better, and people notice.
I can tell you’re very choosy about what goes into your food. Is it ever difficult to get any authentic ingredients you can’t get locally?
Sometimes it can be hard, but we always have it available. Sometimes we have our special spices brought from back home, and sometimes we find it from some specialty wholesalers in California or Detroit, and they ship it directly to us. It can be very expensive to get it fresh, but it’s worth it. We use allspice, cardamom, a little bit of nutmeg, and cinnamon. These are basic spices, but we only use a very high grade of each. I don’t look at the price, I always look at the quality.
What foods are you craving the most right now? Is there a seasonal component to your menu?
The baked eggplant is my favorite because it’s good for this kind of weather in the spring. By the way, I pay $64 for eggplant and we always use it fresh. We don’t ever pass that expense on to our customers. In the spring we also do a lot of vegetables like the tabouleh. Our taboli is the best because it has that fresh flavor you can always expect here.
Let’s shift gears to discuss other parts of your business. Your location here in the Bishop Building is beautiful and historic. I love seeing the beautiful original buildings of Portland put to good use!
Yes, it’s very historic and beautiful. The brick is very eye-catching. We brought in many extra touches as you can see, including the decorative arch, the mural paintings, and the pictures of Lebanon from back in the 1950s.
Moe, I know you well enough now to see that you’re a very hands-on owner. And you don’t like titles. Do you think that’s part of why you’re known for excellent service?
Yes, absolutely. My job is seven days a week because I’m very involved in the day-to-day operations. We all work very hard here. I work in the front and the back of the house. I go buy our ingredients, help with catering, seat customers, wait tables at night, and bartend. I help with everything, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. We all work to provide that added personal touch here, and enjoy the one-on-one part of helping our customers. I could never just walk around acting important, saying, “I’m the owner, blah blah blah.” I don’t even have business cards.
What other things help contribute to your reputation of service? Why do people come back, time and time again?
When you come into Al-Amir and are between these walls, we want you to have an experience of feeling like you are among family and being served by family. That’s why if you’re ever here on a Friday or a Saturday everybody that comes in hugs us because we’ve known them for 20 years. We’re invited to weddings, and we’re invited to funerals. We have baby showers, graduation parties. We’ve done so many caterings for people who have grown up at this restaurant, and now they’re moving onto the second phase of their life. So we are always a part of people’s lives. We feel that we are a generational restaurant. Some people who come here are in their 80s, and they’re with their grandkids who are now teenagers. There’s something for everybody at Al-Amir. That’s what we take pride in!
You mentioned groups. I’ve personally seen several large groups in here. Is that something you really focus on and value?
Yes, because we usually know all of them. Many have been doing business dinners with us for 15 years or more. One of the groups you saw when you were in here last week was a medical company. Their word of mouth has led to other large groups as well. I just scheduled a group from Hong Kong today.
What advice do you have for young people wanting to either enter the food industry or start a restaurant in Portland?
Don’t do it. If I was going to start a new restaurant somewhere, I would go to Eastern Oregon or the coast where new restaurants are doing very well, and there is still a need. The wineries are all doing well with their small restaurants too. Portland is a town where everybody wants to be seen at the current hot-spot. The restaurant scene is so saturated that sometimes people forget about the high-quality traditional restaurants that have been here all along. Al-Amir was the first Lebanese restaurant in Portland, and now it seems like suddenly everybody is opening a Lebanese restaurant.
How does that affect a restaurant like Al-Amir that has been around a long time?
I feel like sometimes Lebanese food gets a bad rap, because they try it at another place that isn’t authentic and don’t like it. But I say, “Try ours. I bet you will like it much more.” So if I was going to tell somebody to venture out, give the oldest, and most authentic Lebanese restaurant a chance first.
What would you say is the main difference between a traditional Lebanese restaurant, and one that is less traditional?
There are so many strange variations of hummus out there now—green bean hummus, white bean hummus, every kind of hummus you could imagine. But hummus should just be traditional hummus, you know what I’m saying? And tabouleh is tabouleh—parsley, tomato, bulgur wheat. Some places make it with quinoa and cucumber and that’s just not tabooli. At Al-Amir, we serve the original, traditional ethnic Lebanese cuisine that we eat at home ourselves. That’s the only thing we serve.
I’ve heard you have a cool weekend scene. Other than authentic food, fresh ingredients, and personal service, what else makes Al-Amir the place to be?
We want everybody to know that we are a shining restaurant and that we entertain people from all different walks of life. That’s what’s important. It doesn’t matter what your social status is, because we’re happy to have everybody here. We’re very authentic, but we’re also very hip. We have a great bar scene. We play international music on the weekends, and have belly dancers every Friday and Saturday at 8 o’clock. We have people of all age groups that come and dance and hang out. We have a variety of things for everybody whether it’s food or entertainment or socializing, it fits in with everybody.
After all these years, what other things make Al-Amir uniquely Portland?
I’m here to stay, and I want to serve. You know what I’m saying? We have the same people working here since we started the business. We don’t change our people. Our kitchen staff has been here since the start. Our dining room staff has been here since the start. That should tell you a lot about who we are.