New flavor on the block

Chico’s latest Mediterranean restaurant is tops

MIDDLE-EASTERN FEAST<br>From left: Robina Malik, John Selvadurai and Aurangzaib Malik enjoy a hearty lunch at Petra Mediterranean Cuisine.

From left: Robina Malik, John Selvadurai and Aurangzaib Malik enjoy a hearty lunch at Petra Mediterranean Cuisine.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

Petra Mediterranean Cuisine
138 Broadway
Hours: Mon.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; closed Sundays

Ali Baba Mediterranean Restaurant

138 Broadway St.
Chico, CA 95928

(530) 345-5000

Chico is really growing into quite a metropolitan city. Newcomers who move here for the small-town atmosphere are bringing with them culture and diversity that increases our arts, dining and retail choices.

Many cities that host diverse populations have neighborhoods associated with certain ethnicities, and in Chico, the west side of Broadway downtown is becoming a kind of Little Mediterranean area. Within three blocks on the same side of Broadway there are a number of restaurants offering faire from the region.

The newest shop to open on this strip is by far the most authentic and price-worthy. Petra Mediterranean Cuisine, opened Dec. 8, 2008 by a family from Jordan, is run by Mohammed Shabbar, whose light brown eyes sparkle as he proudly says of his food, “if you don’t like it, come back and shoot me.”

On a recent unseasonably warm and sunny winter day, I stepped inside the crowded restaurant (formerly the home of Pommes Frites) for lunch with two of my buddies. There are only four small tables inside and about half the space inside is taken by the wide-open kitchen. While we waited to order our food, we watched Arab music videos on a flat-screen TV.

The menu, written in chalk on a large board, offers Mediterranean-style sandwiches, combo plates, salads, appetizers, desserts and drinks. Many of the items I had never heard of before. But the server was really friendly and didn’t mind that my friends and I were unfamiliar with items such as kufta, seasoned beef, labna, a cream cheese dessert, and vinto, a sparkling fruit drink.

I ordered a falafel combo ($6.99), choosing rice as my side item. One of my friends ordered the combo plate ($8.99) and his teenage son ordered the chicken shawarma, $6.99. We then took our meals down the street to enjoy as a picnic in Children’s Park.

Settling down at an empty picnic table, we unwrapped our lunches. My falafel sandwich was prepared in a large pita filled with fresh falafel rolls, cucumber, onion, tomatoes, pickles and hummus and was lightly grilled in a sandwich press. Delicious! I prefer my falafel to maintain some moisture on the inside while being a bit crunchy on the outside and this was perfect. But, my, oh my, when I tasted my side of rice I was delighted I hadn’t chosen the fries. The generous portion of warm rice, Day-Glo green from the saffron seasoning, was so flavorful and tender that every single grain was eaten before I finished my sandwich. Completely vegetarian, the rice seemed to have been simmered in a potent broth full of magical Middle-Eastern spices.

My friend’s meals were no less amazing. Probably one of the most popular items on the menu, the chicken shawarma was chock full of rotisserie chicken, onions, tomatoes, garlic sauce and thin pickles. A pita was used to wrap the shawarma, and the sandwich was lightly grilled in the heated press.

The combo plate consisted of two large skewers, one of tender chicken, the other with a savory beef patty called kufta (the word kufta in Persian means “to grind"). The meat was seasoned with finely chopped herbs and resembled meatloaf, but with a far more exotic flavor. The combo plate includes the aforementioned rice, and the two incredible sauces that were on the sandwiches. The hummus was fresh with a strong chickpea flavor, and its sister sauce, a milky white garlic sauce that seemed to glow with garlic flavor, was similarly excellent. When I went back to the restaurant to inquire about the garlic sauce, Shabbar smiled and said that sauce was a secret family recipe.

Just to have another taste, we ordered one of the appetizers, a potato samosa ($1.25), a pastry filled with vegetables and curry that was hand-rolled and served with a remarkably flavorful green sauce, made with five green ingredients and just a touch of heat.

The food at Petra is better than most meals I have had in Chico, and it certainly rivals any Mediterranean restaurant experience I’ve had.