When Tiffany and Ghaith Sahib opened Aladdin's Castle Café food cart in 2011, they hoped to serve as ambassadors of Iraqi culture using the common language of food. "One of our goals was to help people to see the more positive and beautiful side of my husband's home country," says Tiffany, a Portland native. "When we opened the food cart it was a start. It was a chance for people to be face-to-face with an Iraqi man."
The two had met in 2009 in the Netherlands, where Ghaith was living as a refugee, and when they got married it was during the height of the Iraq war. "It was hard to have people questioning us because we wanted to be together," says Tiffany. "It was important to us to teach others that Middle Eastern people are not to be feared or scary."
But interactions at a cart are too fleeting. They wanted a space where people could sit and soak up the kind of hospitality Middle Eastern culture is known for. So in the winter of 2012 they opened Dar Salam on NE Alberta, in the former Creperie Suzette space. Ghaith and his mother cook traditional Iraqi dishes from a cart in the back, and patrons dine in an old carriage house outfitted with photos and artifacts from their homeland up front.
But after three years, it's become quite clear that they need a bigger space, says Tiffany. They need a place where they can expand their menu, their seating, and even offer traditional live music and dancing. They've taken over the old Sugar Mama's café downtown (320 SW Alder St.), and are in the process of turning it into a to-be-named second location, which they aim to have open in June.
"When we had our second anniversary Ghaith had just gotten his citizenship, so we had a party. We had a couple musicians come in, and a belly dancer, and that party was packed to the brim. People kept saying, ‘Please do this again.' So with this new space we'll be able to do that on a regular basis, and have these large celebrations for Middle Eastern holidays and American holidays. It's a place for people to come and celebrate together."
The new space is 1,800 square feet and includes a larger kitchen, a small bar where they'll mix up cocktails with Middle Eastern flavors, a low stage for live music and belly dancing on Friday and Saturday nights, and a small semi-private dining area with a low table and floor cushions.
She says the décor will be similar to the original location, but with a royal blue color palette and giant murals on the walls. "The ceilings are really high," she says. "So we have two floors of wall space to work with, which is really fun. One mural is of the Gate of Ishtar, and the other is of the hanging garden that was inside, back in the day."
The menu will offer even more traditional Iraqi dishes than the original, and there will be a lunchtime buffet to serve the downtown office crowd. And, like the original location, it will be inclusive of a range of dietary restrictions. "I'm lactose and gluten intolerant," says Tiffany, "And I wanted the menu to be somewhere people like me can come in and not just have salad to chose from. We have lots of options for people who are vegan. And the meat is Halal, so there's no hormones and antibiotics."