Arab Cart Alley Mezza Is Closed, but Its Chef’s Mission Remains Vital

Arab Cart Alley Mezza Is Closed, but Its Chef’s Mission Remains Vital

As Palestinian families faced imminent eviction in Sheikh Jarrah in May 2021, Khaled Alshehab, owner of Southeast Portland food cart Alley Mezza, took to Instagram to express his outrage — not just in response to the violence itself, but to the silence in the Portland food community. “What’s up Portland? Where are all the woke postings? Is Palestinian suffering not trending enough? Portland chefs making money off of Palestinian/Arab cuisines, what’s up?” he wrote in his Instagram stories.

From Alshehab’s perspective, this silence was nothing new. Dining in Portland, he has encountered several restaurants serving Southwestern Asian and Northern African (SWANA) dishes while separating themselves from the cultures: When Tusk first opened, it offered a multicourse tasting menu called the “Magic Carpet Ride.” He enjoyed Aviv’s all-vegan selection, but felt uneasy about the way it labeled its broad SWANA menu “Israeli”; for him, it felt like attributing the cuisine to the colonizer. Walking into Shalom Y’all, he found a wall of words in several languages, but only the Arabic words had been flipped around. To Alshehab, all these restaurants served Arab foods, and had pulled art, design, and even words from the people of SWANA countries without acknowledging the U.S. invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq; the ways Americans supplied military aid to the Israeli occupation of Palestine; U.S.-imposed sanctions on Iran; or the bombings and drone strikes in Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya. “How can you eat at the restaurant, eat the food, while you’re fucking bombing them?” he says.

Alshehab is one of many chefs who are addressing the complexities of SWANA identity in their food and their work. Palestinian chef Reem Kassis, who grew up in East Jerusalem, reclaims and examines the cross-cultural culinary history of Arab cuisines in her cookbooks The Palestinian Table and The Arabesque Table. At Qanoon in New York City, Tarek Daka draws menu inspiration from his mother’s home cooking from his childhood on a farm on the West Bank of Palestine. Meanwhile, Reem Assil opened San Francisco’s first Arab bakery with the goal of celebrating Arab hospitality and fostering community; she later handed over the keys of the original space to an Indigenous chef, Crystal Wahpepah.

When Alshehab finally decided to open Alley Mezza in Portland, it was in response to what he saw as a diminishment of Arab food and culture. He wanted the cart to be entirely vegan and proudly Arab-owned, serving a more accurate representation of SWANA dishes. Five years in the making, the cart opened in the courtyard of cocktail bar Someday, off Division, on February 29, 2020, serving dishes like hummus, muhammara, tabbouleh, vegan labneh, and salad-e shirazi; in 2021, it became a Sunday brunch spot, highlighting popular SWANA breakfast foods, including Bahraini kebab (chickpea flour fritters) and Iranian kuku sabzi (herb omelets).

Alshehab says it’s a joy to cook for people and see them enjoy his food, but his mission is rooted in decolonization: to reclaim the way people talk about, think about, and enjoy SWANA food and culture. The mint-green cart was open for just two weeks before the city went into lockdown in March 2020; when Alley Mezza reopened that summer, it extended those principles surrounding decolonization and food justice by holding fundraisers for organizations like PDX Protest Bail Fund and the Lebanese Red Cross, and popped up at Come Thru Market. Alley Mezza has also been involved in mutual aid fundraisers, offering a free dish to anyone who donates.

But in late October, Alley Mezza closed indefinitely. On October 26, Someday, the brick-and-mortar cocktail bar that shares a lot with Alley Mezza, posted a picture of a labneh dish to be served at the bar. Alshehab posted an Instagram story criticizing the restaurant for serving food of the same cuisine and creating competition with an Arab neighbor. This was not the first time Someday had served the same dishes as Alley Mezza; it had previously served hummus and muhammara at private events, Alshehab says. In a statement to Eater, Someday owners Jessica Baesler and Graham Files indicate that the choice to serve labneh — and other dishes with SWANA roots — was not out of competition (“The courtyard is an ecosystem; we have never viewed our neighbors as competition,” they write), but tied to the Someday chef’s lineage.

“Cultural appropriation via food is real. We are not confused about this,” the statement reads in part. “When a dominant/colonizing/white person doesn’t contextualize with rigor and care, it’s a failure to show respect to the culture from which that food grew … Forms of strained dairy exist all over the SWANA, Balkan, and Greek regions, their diasporas, and the world. [Someday chef] Alicia grew up on this food, as so many of us did by the same or different names. This doesn’t mean that we don’t owe a great deal of thoughtfulness toward food that comes from other cultures, but this slope is a slippery one.”

Some Portland diners began to comment on the now-deleted labneh post in support of Alshehab. One comment, from Iman Labanieh, the farmer and herbalist behind Baylasan Botanicals, read: “I have to admit that it makes me a little bit uncomfortable that you’re choosing to display and sell one of his menu items instead of supporting him as a queer brown immigrant-asylee and small business owner?” Others defended Someday in Instagram comments and direct messages to Alshehab. Following the week’s events, Alshehab decided to close the cart.

A photo of the tofu-based vegan labneh at Alley Mezza, drizzled with olive oil and topped with dry mint, and served in a blue bowl with a mozaic pattern.

Alley Mezza’s tofu-based vegan labneh

Originally from Kuwait, Alshehab came to Oregon on a government scholarship, studying healthcare administration at Oregon State University in Corvallis from 2004 to 2010. While in college, he would cook for other international students from Arab countries who missed the foods from their homes; seeing how much friends enjoyed the food made him realize that he had a knack for cooking. Over the years, he fine-tuned his dishes by researching online, watching YouTube videos, or calling his sister in Kuwait for advice.

He went back to Kuwait after college, but not for long. In 2015, Alshehab returned to Oregon, this time to seek asylum as a queer refugee; it wasn’t until 2020 that he received approval for asylum status. In that five-year period, Alshehab lived in limbo — he wasn’t able to work in the U.S and avoided things like attending protests, worried that he might get deported. That fear skyrocketed when Donald Trump took office. Whenever he traveled to or from the U.S., he was interrogated for hours at customs as Homeland Security maintained a racial-profiling program and registry targeting Muslim men. “It’s stupid and redundant, meant to dehumanize and discourage you from being here,” he says. Launching Alley Mezza was a form of political activism for Alshehab: “I find that cooking and starting this project has been liberating for me, especially from the fallacy of assimilation — the work that I do is rooted in decolonization which is true liberation and empowerment.”

For Alshehab, the true mezza experience — he uses the term “mezza,” instead of “meze,” as he says the former is phonetically derived from Turkish and Arabic dialects — incorporates a variety of slow-cooked handmade dips and salads, which comes as a full spread of small plates. Alley Mezza’s mosaic logo and plates evoked the mezza culture of sharing and abundance, where a variety of dishes, offering different flavors and textures, are served and eaten side by side, not mixed together.

Alshehab found that much of the work at his cart had to do with educating a public that has been fed a contextless version of the cuisine. Alshehab’s hummus is the dish he was proudest to serve at Alley Mezza; in his mind, hummus should not be made with ingredients other than chickpeas. “Hummus is literally the Arabic word for chickpeas. Hummus bi tahina is ‘chickpeas in tahini,’” he says of his favorite food. Comprising chickpeas, salt, garlic, tahini, and lemon, Alley Mezza’s airy, silky hummus took two days to make. It arrived drizzled with olive oil and a dusting of paprika, a traditional preparation and recreation of the hummus Alshehab ate growing up.

Even the olive oil Alshehab uses in the hummus and other dishes — the chef seeks out Tunisian olive oil with a strong peppery, bitter flavor — was part of his mission to decolonize and reclaim the cuisine. Tunisian olive oil manufacturers brand their products “Mediterranean” for import to the U.S.; only a tiny serial number on the label indicates its country of origin. Using a word like “Mediterranean,” in Alshehab’s mind, is a way to erase and avoid acknowledging Arab countries and artisans, to make a product — or restaurant — more palatable to white audiences. “It’s a loophole so they don’t have to engage,” he says. “It’s for white people to feel comfortable.”

To honor the foods and cultures, the chef listed the Arabic names and origin country or region of each dish. The cart explored the variations and regional differences of specific dishes across SWANA countries. For instance, it offered a study in cucumber and tomato salads: Iranian salad-e shirazi with onion, lime, and dry mint dressing; Egyptian salata baladi with vinegar and cumin; Palestinian salatit tahina with tahini dressing; and Iraqi salata summaq with sumac, olive oil, and pomegranate molasses. The menu also included a number of dips beyond hummus: Palestinian musabbaha, made of hand-mashed chickpeas — not completely smooth like hummus — in a lemony tahini sauce; Syrian mutabbal, a smoky roasted eggplant with tahini and garlic (not to be confused with baba ghanoush, which doesn’t use tahini); and Syrian muhammara, made of sun-dried Aleppo pepper paste slow-cooked with roasted red peppers, before adding ka’ak breadcrumbs and walnuts to create the thick, decadent dip. The chef also enjoyed serving small batches of homestyle dishes as specials — like Kuwaiti gaboutt, a rustic dumpling stew and Palestinian musakhan with soy curl chicken rolls — that one wouldn’t normally find at restaurants in the U.S.

A vegan for six years, Alshehab wanted to challenge the idea that SWANA foods are meat-heavy. At Lebanese and Persian restaurants in the U.S., he noticed a huge emphasis on grilled meats, but that’s not the core of the cuisine. Many SWANA dishes are centered around vegetables, and if there’s meat, it’s just a small part of the meal, not the centerpiece like a steak or burger. He noticed that even vegans expect a meaty centerpiece at Alley Mezza — like kebabs made with meat alternatives. With the exception of specials that use meat alternatives as fillings, his cooking is entirely vegetable-based. For vegan dairy, the chef made labneh with Ota Tofu and uses Violife feta — he says the Greek brand’s feta is closer in flavor to traditional feta than the super-salty feta produced in the States.

As much as veganism can be aligned with fighting oppression, Alshehab feels that his identity and experiences as an Arab asylee-immigrant are left out from white-washed vegan spaces. “The vegan scene here is all about the next new burger, chicken sandwich, or the thing that has the most cheese,” he says. “I don’t mean to disparage that, I enjoy those things too, but in turn, there’s very little interest in traditional foods from other cultures.”

Alley Mezza’s Kuwaiti style shakshouka and Palestinian qudsiyeh

Alshehab noticed that 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests spurred Portland chefs and restaurants to approach the issue of appropriation — like Aviv’s Instagram statement on Palestinian rights — but, in his eyes, there’s still much work to be done. Since day one of Alley Mezza, Alshehab has been outspoken about SWANA identity and culture, as well as the appropriation of that culture. When he spoke out about Someday’s labneh dish and the larger issue of appropriation in Portland food, he wasn’t alone; his community commented on the post, echoing his sentiments.

Still, for Alshehab, the ongoing frustrations with these sorts of incidents — especially from a neighbor — made the chef question his very presence in the Portland restaurant industry. On Instagram, he posted an eggplant-colored square with white text that reads, “The joy of this project has been stolen from me,” with a caption announcing the cart’s closure “until I can carve a tiny space for me again.” In the post, he wrote, “I’m afraid I’m even beginning to doubt that there is space for me in this town.”

On November 2, days after Alley Mezza announced its closure, Someday posted a now-deleted Instagram statement with comments closed. It read: “We are genuinely sorry to have caused any pain over the past few days. That was never our intention. We hear your words and are actively learning from our community.” In response, Alshehab posted on Instagram, detailing his experiences as a tenant of that lot, including how Someday was directly competing with his business by selling SWANA foods. The conversation continued on Instagram, with another public statement from Someday.

In their statement to Eater, Baesler and Files expressed remorse over the loss of Alley Mezza but challenged the idea that they are solely responsible for the cart’s closure. “It’s a fact that our neighbor, Khaled, has been hurt by us. We acknowledge and take full responsibility for that hurt, both as a neighboring business and as actual human neighbors,” the statement reads. “We have tried time and again to engage, communicate, and take responsibility directly, but Khaled has not taken us up on that, which is entirely his prerogative.”

As news of Alley Mezza’s closure made its way around town, Alshehab’s supporters rallied in response. Several Portland restaurants, including Kim Jong Grillin, Erica’s Soul Food, Mama Đút, Mestizo, and Mirisata, took to Instagram to express their support for Alley Mezza. Luna Contreras, the chef behind Mexican pop-up Chelo, posted an Instagram story that read: “I will help Khal push his cart to a more welcoming space. I stand in solidarity with Alley Mezza and those marginalized friends, the hundreds that have been dismissed.” Contreras filtered funds from her Día de los Muertos collaborative pop-up on November 1 to support Alley Mezza because she wanted to support a fellow member of the queer community.

Umut Matkap, owner of Turkish restaurant Lokanta, donated 50 percent of restaurant sales from Sunday, November 7 to Alshehab, whom he considers a friend and an ally; the restaurant hit record sales and sold out. “Khaled is an amazing guy who puts his heart into his food. I’ll try whatever it takes to support him. He is not alone and a bunch of industry folks like us will be backing him up against cultural theft,” says Matkap, who is originally from Antakya, Turkey, and moved to Portland in 2016.

Matkap gestures toward other restaurants and restaurant groups that he says are “bringing a SWANA culinary experience without crediting the culture,” he says. “It’s not about the skin color, [the] religion at all. It’s about learning about the cuisine from the region and not bastardizing the culture.”

While Alley Mezza’s future is uncertain, Alshehab hopes Portlanders used his food as a way to learn more about the cultures behind it, as well as challenge their own prejudices and preconceptions about the people behind the cuisine. Before the cart announced its indefinite closure, the chef told Eater that his motivation isn’t just serving something delicious; it’s to tie that food to the people behind it. “I want people not only to enjoy their meal at Alley Mezza, but also to learn the true names of the dishes and who are the people that made them,” he says. “I want them to not only fall in love with the flavors, but also take an interest in the cultures that produced them. In the hope that they realize our full humanity.”