Eugene, Oregon, and Chef Ibrahim “Ib” Hamide, founder of Café Soriah on 13th Avenue, have been through a lot together: the tumultuous ’60s, the booming ’90s, the tense aftermath of 9/11 and, now, Donald Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric.
A native Palestinian, Hamide grew up in Bethlehem, immigrating to Eugene in 1969 at the age of 18 to attend the University of Oregon. Recalling his early days in Eugene, Hamide says, “People smiled at me,” something he still feels is true about Eugene. “I will take that to my grave.”
Hamide launched Café Soriah more than two decades ago. He got into the restaurant business because he was missing the food of his home. “I wanted to eat it,” Hamide remembers. “I couldn’t find it.”
Soriah is now a culinary institution in Eugene: a destination for date nights, special occasions or late night cocktails — a grown-up local’s pick for good food and a sense of community.
Hamide recalls Soriah’s post-9/11 smoke-bomb attack, a dark spot on his time here in Eugene. Last year, Hamide told Flux, a magazine produced by the University of Oregon’s journalism school, that after the terror attacks of 9/11 he worked to be a “de facto spokesman for Palestine.”
Bricks were thrown through the windows of his restaurant twice and so was a smoke bomb. The family of a Café Soriah employee was threatened. But Hamide’s quick to add the outpouring of community support carried him through.
Today, Soriah’s menu offers a lunch, dinner and bar menu, focused on Hamide’s native Mediterranean cuisine. For a small plate, try curried beef kebab (beef tenderloin in onion, cilantro, ginger and curry powder, all topped with yogurt) or the baby trio (hummus, baba ghanoush and dolmas, served with pita).
Or for dinner, try prawns Jericho (tiger prawns sautéed with scallions, peppercorns, garlic, mushrooms and white wine). Hamide jokes he’s no longer “a spring chicken,” but he still serves chicken foostuck (pistachio-breaded chicken breast sautéed and finished with dijon tarragon cream sauce).
Soriah also offers a full bar, salads and plenty of vegetarian options.
“When I started, ‘hummus’ was not a household word by any stretch,” Hamide explains. “I was introducing my new adopted nation to the food that I grew up on to preach its attributes.”
“In third-world nations especially food carries a lot more meaning,” he adds. “It’s gathering, its social, it’s hospitable. Food is the centerpiece of social events.”
Hamide is proud to be part of Eugene’s quality food scene. “Eugene is no place to be ashamed of if you have an out-of-town guest.” Last year, Hamide had the opportunity to buy his building and expand his dining area.
This expansion is something Hamide hoped to do from the very beginning. During the warm months, Soriah’s seats guests in its romantic back-garden area. During cold weather, Hamide’s small and intimate dining area is packed to capacity.
“It’s been a godsend,” Hamide says, explaining he’s now able to accommodate more people in the space, painted in cool Mediterranean blues, during dinner rush, as well as host special events like weddings and corporate parties.
Over the years, Hamide learned that nothing bridges a cultural divide like food, calling it a common denominator. “They say, ‘Get them through the stomach,’” he explains, adding nothing is more personal than prepping and serving someone a meal. “People put it into their mouths, into their systems. That’s pretty special.”
Hamide continues: “People are entrusted to put something on a plate they’re going to take into their system. You better take that assignment with the most respectful awe. When the locals are introduced to somebody else’s food and like it, people feel the culture.”
He adds, “It’s a real understatement and a cliché, but the best way to get to know other cultures is through their food, through their language, through their art: ambassadors to their culture.”
Café Soriah is at 384 W. 13th Avenue. It’s open every day from 5 pm to 10 pm. For more information and a full menu go to cafesoriah.com.