The owner of the Mazza Bistro, a new Middle Eastern restaurant in downtown Bend, is not just another face in the crowd. In fact, Michel (Mike) Shehadeh might be one of the most prominent Arab-Americans on the West Coast.
Born in Jordan and raised in a Palestinian Christian family in the West Bank, Shehadeh, 56, has been in the U.S. since enrolling at Cal State-Long Beach in 1975. There he earned degrees in magazine journalism and public policy administration. He went on to become regional director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and the executive director of California's annual Arab Film Festival.
So how did a man with such a resume come to operate a tiny cafe on a back street in Central Oregon?
“I used to come to Bend to camp and fish with my family every summer," Shehadeh said. “Eventually, we had to ask ourselves, why should we keep coming here just once a year when this is a place that we want to live? So we moved here in 2005 when my oldest son started college at COCC."
His particular skill set was not conducive to finding work in Bend, so Shehadeh commuted from the San Francisco Bay Area “until it got too hard." He and his wife, Maxine, decided the restaurant business was the way to go.
A casual cafe
Having once partnered in a restaurant in Southern California, Shehadeh began looking for a location where he could offer a casual, family-style dining experience.
He found it when Pita Pit closed its Brooks Street cafe in June 2011.
“We had to renovate because the previous restaurant had more of a fast-food look than we wanted," Shehadeh said. “I wanted our kitchen to be up front so that people can see what we are doing when we cook."
In fact, the renovation was a modest one, with an updated color palette and a minimalist appeal. Lively Arabic music plays on a continuous stream. A few Middle Eastern artifacts and several framed landscapes by local photographer Melynda Lappin accentuate the neat, clean decor. The cafe seats no more than two dozen patrons at a time.
Diners order at the counter from a large menu posted on the wall, pay their bill and wait for the meal to be served at their table. Maxine Shehadeh or another member of the service staff delivers the food with a big smile, returns shortly thereafter to confirm satisfaction with the order, and follows up for any additional requests.
A Mazza sampler
This is what my dining companion and I have shared on two visits:
Homemade red lentil soup with carrots, parsley, onions and spices. It was hearty but didn't truly burst with flavor.
Dolma. Five chilled grape leaves, stuffed with rice, arranged in a star with a lemon slice on top, and drizzled with olive oil. I found the white rice, mixed with herbs, to be overcooked and pasty.
Tabbouleh. The traditional salad was heavy on chopped parsley and mint, light on bulgur grain and chopped tomatoes. Although olive oil and garlic were used in its preparation, the dominant flavor was of lemon juice.
Greek salad. Chopped romaine hearts were tossed with Kalamata olives, tomatoes and cucumbers, chick peas and a crumble of feta cheese. Balsamic dressing was served on the side, but it lacked zest.
Falafel wrap. Ground chick peas (garbanzos), quickly deep-fried for a crispy crust, folded into tortilla-like lavash flatbread with hummus, onions and a finely diced tomato-and-cucumber salad. Tahini sauce in the sandwich was essential, as the lavash was anything but moist.
Chicken shawarma plate. A generous portion of peppery chicken, shaved from a vertical spit, was served with onions and parsley on a bed of yellow basmati rice. It was offered with a warm dry piece of pita bread, tabbouleh salad and creamy hummus that contained a few whole chick peas and a paprika sprinkle.
Lamb kebab plate. Of all the dishes I sampled at Mazza, this is my favorite. Two skewers of lamb — four marinated chunks on each stick, cooked medium-rare and tender — were laid upon basmati rice with roasted pieces of green pepper, onions and tomatoes. The sides were hummus, Greek salad and pita bread.
Chocolate halaweh (halva). I don't have much of a sweet tooth, but my friend, who is of Jewish heritage, pronounced these confection bars excellent. They were made with nut butters and dipped in chocolate.
The addition of Mazza gives Bend three Middle Eastern restaurants, including Joolz, on Wall Street, and Kebaba, on Newport Avenue.
“I don't feel that the three of us compete with each other in many ways," said Shehadeh. “Joolz is more fusion, where East meets West. Kebaba promotes its 'modern' Middle Eastern foods.
“I use the word 'traditional' in my concept. I use the recipes that I inherited, that I grew up with. But I infuse learning from my customers and I add my own touch. That, in turn, becomes the tradition of my kids. Tradition is not a static thing."
Price-wise, Mazza is positioned between its rivals. Mazza charges more for the same dishes at Kebaba; I find that understandable, given higher overhead costs in downtown Bend as opposed to the west side. Mazza charges a little less than Joolz for such dishes as the falafel plate and lamb kebab, but then, Joolz offers a more complete dining experience.
Like its owner, perhaps, Mazza will soon be more than just another face in the Bend restaurant crowd.
The Smith Rock Brewing Company opened Tuesday. Natalie Patterson, one of four family owners, said a menu of pub food — from hand-pressed burgers on house-made ciabatta bread, to pulled pork sandwiches, chile and posole — will be served 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday. 546 N.W. Seventh St., Redmond; 541-279-7005, www.smithrockbrewing.com.
Pho House, a casual Vietnamese cafe in Redmond Plaza, expects to open for business shortly after Thanksgiving. The restaurant plans to be open daily for lunch and dinner. 1604 S. U.S. Highway 97, Suite 9, Redmond.