PORTLAND — Audai Naser tosses a fat round of bread dough back and forth between his hands, making a slapping noise that fills his tiny kitchen on Forest Avenue for a few seconds.
Then he lays the flattened dough on a cloth-lined sponge pillow and gently places it inside his tandoor oven. The dough sticks to the side of the hot oven and is there for literally a minute before Naser retrieves it with a pair of big tongs.
With the grace of someone who has been doing this for 29 years, Naser tosses the tenur, a traditional Iraqi flatbread, across the room onto a table piled with the freshly baked bread. He makes 200 of these flatbreads a day, along with 200 samoom, a traditional pocket bread.
“It’s easy,” Naser said. “Before when I worked in Iraq, I make bread (in) one hour, 1,000. I make every day 6,000 in six hours.”
Bread is not the only thing Naser bakes at Tandoor Bread & Restaurant, his little bakery across the street from Baxter Woods.
Every day, he and his wife, Kanat Saad, and their helpers produce a good array of delicious Middle Eastern fare, from falafel and shawarma to baklava and other Arabic pastries.
Tucked behind Downeast Appliance and in the same row of businesses as Haggarty’s and the Fishermen’s Net, Tandoor is one of Portland’s hidden gems. There are only two tables, so most people get take-out, and the decor is plain to say the least – but no one goes there for the decor.
Audai (pronounced Oh-day) Naser, an Iraqi refugee, has a small but extremely loyal following. Most of his customers are other refugees and immigrants, or students who are studying here and wanting a taste of home. Five Middle Eastern families regularly drive here from Boston, and another four from Vermont, just to buy his breads and other foods.
Recently, an Iraqi from Boston called Tandoor to say he had eaten Naser’s bread three years ago but lost the name of the business, and had been searching for it ever since.
Naser estimates that maybe 5 percent of his walk-ins are Portlanders not of Middle Eastern descent who have heard about his food. Most of his business around town consists of selling wholesale breads and pastries to markets and restaurants.
He also produces and delivers Ariel’s pita bread, developed in partnership with Ariel Glazer of Ariel’s Hummus. Glazer is transitioning the pita bread business over to Naser.
Glazer admits he’s biased, but he is one of Naser’s biggest fans.
“I haven’t had such good pita anywhere outside of the Middle East,” he said. “He also makes a delicious baklava. It’s made out of natural ingredients, it’s fresh. It’s not that overwhelming. Usually, baklava is very, very sweet. You have one bite and you’re done.”
Naser’s baklava is flavored with rosewater and cardamom, and sweetened with a honey syrup. It contains both walnuts and almonds. He also makes bourma, a phyllo pastry similar in taste and texture to baklava.
On the savory side, Glazer is partial to Naser’s shawarma – meats grilled on a spit and shaved for sandwiches. He says the Tandoor shawarma is “truly authentic.”
Naser’s falafel is extra crunchy on the outside, a great contrast to the ultra-creamy chickpea filling inside. His Za’atar bread, a breakfast flatbread that’s eaten while it’s still warm, is covered in a herb-and-spice mixture of thyme, sumac, sesame seeds and salt that’s been moistened with olive oil. Order it with a cup of slightly sweetened Arabic tea, and it’s a much healthier way to start your day than going through the drive-thru at the local fast-food joint.
Talal Karam, a veterinarian technician and massage therapist who moved to Maine not long ago from Indiana, was recently in Tandoor after having met Naser just a couple of days earlier. Karam, originally from Syria, said when he eats Naser’s food, “I feel like I am in Damascus or something like that.”
Karam acted as translator on a recent Wednesday afternoon as Naser spoke of his background and explained his plans for the future.
Naser started baking bread in Iraq in 1983, but fled that country during the Gulf War. He lived in Syria for three years, which is where he learned to make just about everything else.
In 2008, Naser moved to the United States. His first stop was Atlanta, but he found it too violent there, and within three months had moved to Portland, which he had heard about from a few friends who had lived here.
Naser and his family (he and his wife have seven children) started Tandoor at the Portland Public Market in 2009, with the help of Coastal Enterprises Inc. After six months, in late 2009, he moved into the small building on Forest Avenue.
Now he’s hoping to expand his business by attracting more retail customers and adding new items such as stuffed breads containing cheese, meat or spinach to his menu. He’s ordered a large red, white and blue sign for Forest Avenue advertising “shawarma, falafel, Iraqi kabob, handcrafted Iraqi bread and Arabic pastries” so people can more easily find him.
Naser’s got the help of friends and folks like Mary Grant, the former owner of Simply Scandinavian Foods, who has been assisting him in various ways as he negotiates the local business community.
Grant says Naser is a generous man who tries to pay forward the help he has been given. She said he aids newcomers to the city by letting them work some hours at the bakery. He also gives them food for their families to tide them over until they can find a job and get settled.
The baker’s day begins at 5 a.m., and with the exception of an occasional sleep break, he is there until the place closes at 9 p.m. Bread baking goes until about 10 a.m.
One reason for the long hours is that Naser wants his customers to see first hand the passion and commitment he has for food. He likes the fact that people can watch him bake the bread and make their food when they come in to order something. They can see and smell how fresh his ingredients are before they ever put anything in their mouths.
“I am putting all my heart into what I’m doing,” he said. “I like to show it as well.”
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: [email protected]