By Laura Reiley
Times Food Critic
ST. PETERSBURG — A lot of cultures have the same good idea. Put some meat on a spit. Rotate so that flames lick the meat's exterior. Carve those hot exterior bits paper-thin into a piece of bread, exposing the uncooked layer further down. There's Mexican al pastor, usually pork, a tortilla cradling the delicious slices. There's Turkish doner kebab served in thick pita. Then the lamb/beef combo that is gyros, usually slathered with a tangy yogurt tzatziki. And the Arabic shawarma, pretty close to gyros, except that it often comes with a sesame tahini or garlic sauce.
It may not be a sexy location — at the corner of 54th Avenue and 49th Street N — but the new Zeko's Mediterranean Grill is a meat-on-a-spit pro. The order-at-the-counter quickie turns out solid shawarma and gyros, beef and chicken kebabs, falafel and a short list of fried fish and seafood. Owner Khaled Eljamal has fashioned the new building into a sleek, contemporary space that gives away nothing about the cuisine in question. It might be a coffeehouse or a dentist's office. But nope, marinated beef, spit-roasted and juicy, stacked into soft Middle Eastern flatbread with a length of pickle, onion and rich tahini sauce, a pile of excellent plank-style fries as its sidekick (sandwich only $4.99, with fries $6.49). Even better than the fries, an order of veggies ($2.99 small, $4.99 large) brings greaseless battered mushrooms, broccoli and cauliflower (I don't know about cauli deep-fried — gets squishy), zucchini and rings of onion. Crunchy and soft-centered, it's a sinful way to eat your vegetables, paired with a tiny cup of salsa.
A long row of booths offer a pleasant perch for eating in, but takeout service is crackerjack (no missing items, no cold food withered by being cheek to jowl with hot stuff). The kebab platters travel superbly (beef $7.99, chicken $6.99). They even ask you how you'd like your beef cooked, sliding the finished skewers into a box with buttery saffron rice and bagging up a cup of chopped tomato, cuke and onion, which you're supposed to mix into the rice.
This chopped veggie salad has snap and tang, very refreshing, matched in verve and wholesomeness by the house Greek salad ($4.99 small, $6.99 large) and the kicky parsley/bulgher tabouli ($5.99). For the vegetarian, this adds up to a meal with an order of hummus and pita ($2.49 small, $4.49 large), a few whole chickpeas, swirl of olive oil and sprinkle of what tasted like lemony sumac giving it a unique spin.
Once it has been up and running for a while, Zeko's plans to open a drive-through window. I like the idea of the dining public being familiar enough with these Middle Eastern street foods to shout into the mike, "Gimme a shawarma and a gyro, and don't scrimp on the tzatziki."
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.