On Friday afternoons, the ornate dining room of Queen Mama’s Kitchen, the new Saudi Arabian restaurant on Southwest Oak Street, fills with the scent of lamb, smoke, cardamom and dried lime ahead of its 5 p.m. opening. Friday is mandi night, the day Maha Alhabi, the owner of the restaurant, slow-braises and smokes lamb shanks to serve alongside rice cooked in the lamb’s rendered fat and jus. The Yemeni dish is a popular one, and Alhabi’s regulars know to come early to try it. On a recent Friday, the first group arrived at 4:30, to be sure to get a plate. Alhabi let them in early, seating them below the rows of mounted plates that line the dining room’s back wall.
Queen Mama’s Kitchen, a catering company-turned-food cart-turned-restaurant, is likely the city’s only explicitly Saudi Arabian spot, the product of years of study and work in the face of hardship and grief — not that Alhabi would show it. The chef and restaurant owner exudes grace, her hands folded in her lap as she speaks in a low, quiet voice, smiling. Her restaurant opened in the fall, alongside an adjoining dessert shop called the Cheesecake Boutique. Soon, she’ll soon open her second location just a few blocks away, within the Flock food hall at Block 216. All three will celebrate the foods and traditions of Saudi Arabia, but also Alhabi as a “generous and intelligent” host, in her daughter’s words.
Queen Mama’s explores the wide range of culinary influences on Saudi Arabia, like nearby Yemen, Egypt, and Oman. Each day, she serves a different rotating dish: On Mondays, she stirs pieces of dough into a lamb and vegetable stew called margoog; on Thursdays, she slowly cooks Egyptian rice in homemade chicken stock until it develops the consistency of risotto for a chicken-rice dish called saleeg. Every day, the restaurant offers classics like shawarma, roast chicken, and meze, from silken rice-filled grape leaves bright with pomegranate molasses to baba ghanoush with plenty of smoky eggplant. Meals finish with dates and Arabic coffee. “Not everyone knows about Saudi food,” she says. “I want them to taste dishes the right way.”
While she was growing up in eastern Saudi Arabia, Alhabi had no interest in cooking. Her mother tried to encourage her, but Alhabi found the smells overwhelming and the recipes confusing. When her mother asked her to make some pasta, she put the noodles in a pan and waited for them to melt.
Alhabi’s first passion was interior design, as is evident in her restaurant. Touches of sapphire, sky, and cerulean blues appear throughout the space, from the sodalite tables to the robin’s egg walls. Burnt orange banquettes line the dining room’s perimeter, lit by brass tableside lamps. Countless mirrors and plates hang around the room, including two white plates with crowns, sitting within a gold frame. The plates are for Alhabi and her husband, who died of pancreatic cancer last November.
Alhabi met her husband, Eihab Alshammari, in Saudi Arabia. When they got married, the two moved across the country, where she focused on mothering her four kids. Alhabi and Alshammari spent much of their time traveling, including trips to the United States; when she visited Portland, she fell in love. “I thought, ‘Oh, my Gosh, this is where I want to spend my life,” she says. “I love rain; I love the color of the leaves.”
The family moved to the United States in 2013, and Alhabi decided to get her degree in business. As a student, Alhabi would host her classmates at her house often. “I’d cook for all of them,” she says. “You don’t have to call, you can just come over.” Once she got her degree, she started her catering business — in early 2020. In 2021, she tried again, opening a food cart serving roast chickens and a handful of other Saudi dishes. Just as the cart was becoming successful, her husband was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He died six weeks later.
“I was laying next to him in the hospital bed, thinking, ‘There’s no way he’s going to die,’” she says. “He said, ‘After this, you are going to open your restaurant.’ I said, ‘We are.’ He said, ‘No, I won’t be here.’ I said, ‘I don’t want to do it without you.’”
After Alshammari died, Alhabi was overwhelmed with grief. Her children encouraged her to keep going, “for Baba,” but she felt lost. When the team at Flock reached out to her about opening a stall within the food hall, she told them she didn’t have a food cart anymore, so she couldn’t even offer a tasting. Instead, she hosted them in her home; she signed the papers for her space that night.
Alhabi ended up finding her restaurant space soon afterward, before Flock finished renovations. When she first stepped inside, she marked a small square on the dining room floor with masking tape. “Why so small?” they asked. “I want the rest for my cakes,” she said.
Next door to Queen Mama’s Kitchen sits the Cheesecake Boutique, a small dessert counter serving cheesecakes smothered in various sauces — velvety pistachio, a generously spiced pumpkin, a thinner, caramel-y sauce with sliced almonds. But the Cheesecake Boutique is more than just cheesecake: Saffron cakes, small pineapple cakes, and date cakes share space with the cheesecake slices in the case. Looming over the counter is a row of small ceramic cups and brass dallahs, pots used for Arabic coffee. Arabic coffee, known as qahwa, is brewed with cardamom pods and roasted so lightly it still appears green in the cup. It’s served without cream or sugar, but instead, syrupy sweet dried dates arrive alongside the coffee, to nibble on between sips. Hadwa Alshammari, Alhabi’s daughter, pours the dallah with her left hand, green liquid landing in two small cups in her right. “Always the right hand,” she says. “That’s the tradition.”
For Alhabi, the restaurant isn’t just about the food or beverage; it’s about the service, and the connections she can make — both in terms of bringing Saudi expats to the United States, and introducing lifelong Portlanders with her culture and community. “People say, ‘What’s next?’” the restaurant owner says. “I want a village. I want everyone to see Portland... I want people here to meet Saudi people. When they come in, I want them to feel like they’re in my home.”
Queen Mama’s Kitchen and the Cheesecake Boutique are now open at 406 SW Oak Street.