Daren Haslip, of Poland, waits for his order at Mazzat. He’s a first-time customer. Michele McDonald/Photo Editor

You might not know exactly where Mazzat is in Portland, but I can tell you who does: snowplow drivers.

On a recent post-storm visit to this technically Iraqi (but practically more pan-Levant) fast-casual restaurant, I found myself dining alongside not one but five Carhartt overall-sporting customers, each of whom seemed to have a different plow parked outside in a nearby lot or along this quiet stretch of Bishop Street in Morrill’s Corner.

Mazzat’s three-table dining room isn’t designed to fit many more than a few customers (with or without plows), so we sat cheek-by-jowl, some nibbling on sweet-and-sticky sari Burma ($4.99), a rolled version of the phyllo-and-walnut confection better known as baklava; some waiting for biryani, kebabs and shawarma. Chatting with your neighbor (especially about the weather) seemed to be de rigeur.

“Is this a post-storm hangout, or do you guys come here a lot?” I asked, sipping my cool, savory, yogurt-based ayran ($2.99). It was then that I also realized my question sounded a bit like a pickup line.

Mohamed Elsafiaby, a behavioral therapist from New Hampshire, stops at Mazzat for a meal every time he comes to Maine for work. Michele McDonald/Photo Editor

No matter. “This is where we meet up after a big job, usually,” a man in a University of New England jacket told me. “It’s guys from UNE, Westbrook, Portland. It’s central for everybody, and it’s easy to get back on Forest or Deering from here,” he added, pointing to the corner.

Without a pickup or a plow of my own, I hadn’t considered the potential Venn diagram overlap between heavy winter precipitation and clamshell containers of mint-forward Shirazi salad prepared with orange, red and green peppers and finely diced cucumbers ($4.99). But it made sense: Of course there’s a premium on well-prepared food that tastes good whether eaten in a restaurant or in the cab of an F-150.


A beef saj sandwich at Mazzat is a burrito-esque bundle of spit-roasted shawarma shavings in garlicky tahini dressing and swaddled in a toasty flatbread. Michele McDonald/Photo Editor

For the most part, that’s what Mazzat’s takeout-friendly menu comprises. One prime example is the beef saj ($9.99), a burrito-esque bundle of spit-roasted shawarma shavings slathered in garlicky tahini dressing and swaddled in a toasty, foot-wide flatbread. Yes, I imagined myself holding a saj in one hand while turning my steering wheel with the other. For maximum maneuverability, I think I’d also forego the distributor-sourced french fries (add $4).

Similarly, I imagine the canoe-shaped cheese and olive pie ($4.99) would do well in inclement weather. If you can’t picture it, think of this sweet, yeasted-dough snack topped with feta and cream cheese, scallions and black olives (canned, unfortunately) as an open-faced calzone.

The canoe-shaped cheese and olive pie ($4.99), is a sweet, yeasted-dough snack topped with feta and cream cheese, scallions and black olives. Michele McDonald/Photo Editor

“Those are my favorites,” the server taking my order told me when I requested the khachapuri-like pie. “Every day, I eat one.” In his position, I’d probably do the same. Or if pressed, I’d alternate between the olive variety and the cheeseless muhammara pie ($4.99), similar in format, but stuffed with Mazzat’s exceptionally spicy and tangy, walnut-based muhammara dip (also sold as an appetizer for $4.99).

Despite an anomalously underdressed fattoush, a salad that cried out for more salt, more mint and more tart sumac to offset out-of-season tomatoes ($8.99), spicing and seasoning are Mazzat’s strongest suits, while techniques around precise cooking sometimes lag behind.

Case in point, the shish & kabab combo ($22.99), a Brobdingnagian platter groaning from the weight of two shish (skewers served with yogurt-dill sauce and lemon), two portions of shawarma (sliced, vertical-spit-roasted meat), your choice of above-average hummus or excellent baba ghanoush and enough turmeric-hued, herby rice to feed three people. Oh, and for dessert, a square of baklava about the size of the “tab” key on your laptop.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a better bargain in terms of quantity, but on my snowbound visit, the lamb in both formats was overcooked and tough, despite bold flavor from cumin, cayenne and paprika. Chicken was better. The shish version was barely juicy enough to call it a success, while the shawarma version – more like a spiced chicken meatball than an actual cut of white or dark meat – was terrific.


Lentil soup from Mazzat Restaurant in Portland is a favorite of regulars. Michele McDonald/Photo Editor

Perhaps best of all though was a menu item that, on my visit, I saw practically everyone in the place eating: lentil soup ($4.99). I almost didn’t order it myself, but when one of the plow guys picked up that I was tasting my way through the menu, he insisted. “It’s like my grandma’s split-pea soup. Just no ham,” he said. Indeed. Considering that Mazzat complies with halal restrictions, that particular omission makes sense.

When my order was ready, I spotted not a bowl but a clear plastic tub of soup. Perhaps so I could admire the soup’s stunning ochre hue? Which I did. But I wasn’t there for visuals alone. When I cracked the container open, tendrils of onion-scented steam made a break for it. But that wasn’t enough to stop me. I managed to inhale enough to fog my glasses, enough to recognize that I needed to grab the spoon on my tray immediately.

Blended to a smooth, savory puree, Mazzat’s lentil soup is simple, filling and exceptionally warming. My neighbor at the table next to mine just nodded and smiled at me as he slurped through his own bowl. I might never be a plow guy, but surrounded by Mazzat’s exposed brick walls, tiled floors and menu-blaring LED screens, I now understand how to eat like one.

RATING: ***1/2
WHERE: 11 Bishop St., Portland, 207-956-7695, mazzatportland.com
SERVING: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers and salads: $4.49-$12.99, sandwiches and entrees: $6.99-$22.99
NOISE LEVEL: Domino toppling tournament
VEGETARIAN: Many dishes
BAR: None
BOTTOM LINE: Tucked away on a quiet side street off of Portland’s Morrill’s Corner neighborhood, Mazzat impresses with its fast-casual, mostly Iraqi menu of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean dishes. Sides like spicy muhammara spread, smooth and savory lentil soup, decent hummus and fantastic baba ghanoush are all worth ordering. So too anything featuring the kitchen’s juicy, cumin-spiced chicken shawarma. For lunch or a snack, traditional canoe-shaped feta-and-olive pie is a good pick, as is a burrito-adjacent, flatbread-wrapped saj. Mazzat’s dining room features only three tables, so plan on a cozy dinner or order to go. Either way, don’t forget to grab a honey-drenched, cylindrical and baklava-like Burma pastry for your drive home.

Ratings follow this scale and take into consideration food, atmosphere, service, value and type of restaurant (a casual bistro will be judged as a casual bistro, an expensive upscale restaurant as such):

* Poor
** Fair
*** Good
**** Excellent
***** Extraordinary

The Maine Sunday Telegram visits each restaurant once; if the first meal was unsatisfactory, the reviewer returns for a second. The reviewer makes every attempt to dine anonymously and never accepts free food or drink.

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of seven recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.

Contact him at: andrewross.maine@gmail.com
Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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