WHAT I ATE: Middle Eastern cuisine classically starts with a meze "tasty morsel" platter, arriving as an array of hot and cold appetizers: grape leaves; scoopable hummus and baba ghanoush, one lemony, one smoky; falafel (deep-fried chick peas); and kibbe, (spicy meat, onion and ground pine nuts in a crispy, football-shaped cracked wheat shell), plus labaneh and tahini sauces. With this generous starter came a small dish of pickled veggies, Za'atar-dotted olive oil and a basket of warm pita quarters. The spice blend Za'atar — typically, sumac, oregano, thyme, toasted sesame seeds, salt and other herbs — is as addictive as it is essential.
Taste buds teased, we patiently awaited entrees, such virtue requested by the server. Beef, lamb and chicken dishes are not cooked until she hands the chef the order. Everything is made from scratch, she said. No worries, we happily mopped the meze plate clean with every last bit of pita.
In about 15 minutes, the beef shawarma came thinly sliced, cooked with tomatoes and onions, hints of cardamom and more than a hint of garlic. Chicken shawarma is just as popular, and both come with two side dishes: salad, hummus, baba ghanoush, basmati rice or french fries.
I aimed more adventurously, choosing kalayah: spicy lamb stew with chunks of tomatoes and swirls of jalapenos, usually served in a skillet. The basmati rice softens the kick of the hot peppers. Chicken kalayah is also available.
Vegetarians reveled in options, from the vivid green lentil soup to tabouli, fattoush and cucumber salads, mixed and matched with foule (pureed fava beans), mesabaha (mostly whole chick peas loaded with garlic) and kalaya bandura (tomatoes and jalapeno sauted in garlic and olive oil).
Somewhere, there must be an unwritten rule that says no Mediterranean meal can end without baklava. Petra makes its own flakey, honey-filled pastry, as well as a baklava cheesecake and a basbousa, a light, semolina cake made with yogurt.
WHAT IT COST: You might start with a couple of individual mezes for about $8 each, but the sampler platter is probably a better investment at $13.99, or with vegetarian selections only, $11.99. Follow the starters with lentil soup, $4.99, or jump to a salad, $9.99. For $5 more, chicken kebab or chicken shawarma can be added; $6 to top with shish kebab. Pita sandwiches are all less than $7.
Grill entrees start at $13.49 for marinated chicken (tawook) kebabs and rise to $14.99 for ground lamb. Go for the mixed grill combo and enjoy the best of both worlds. Tilapia is the only seafood on the menu, grilled or fried, for $12.99; all entrees come with two sides. My kalayah was $12.49. The daily special — might be lamb shank or perhaps a half-chicken — is $12.99; or half-size for $8.99.
All meat is halal, translated from Arabic as permissible, and refers to Islamic food restrictions.
Figure five moderately-hungry folks can dine family style on the Grilled Family Boat (the menu says four to six people) for $60. You'll pass around the house salad, hummus and baba ghanoush, two kinds of lamb kebabs, marinated and ground, and plenty of pita.
Desserts start at $2.99 for baklava and top at $5.99 for the baklava cheesecake.
Catering for private parties is available, offsite and in the second-floor dining room.
WHAT I THOUGHT: Unlike its namesake, the historical and archaeological city of Petra in southern Jordan, the Kennedy Boulevard restaurant decor won't make it on anyone's list of Wonders of the World. Neatly spartan, there are a dozen tables and a bar downstairs, with seating for another 50 diners upstairs. The full menu is also served outdoors, under umbrellas and in cozy niches. Still no alcohol, but the lemonade loaded with fresh mint is a delight. Weekends draw a hookah crowd, especially international students from the nearby University of Tampa campus. Coming up: a Ramadan buffet — the regular menu plus many traditional dishes, beginning at sunset — will be served beginning June 6 and continue for 30 days.
Times staff writer Amy Scherzer