Zayna Mediterranean: 14 years of authentic Syrian cuisine in Tucson

Dishes include chicken shawarma, mujadara, and tabouleh.

“Many people don’t know this, but tabouleh is traditionally made with more parsley than bulgar,” explained Riad Altoubal, owner of Zayna Mediterranean. “When they come here, it’s often their first time experiencing an authentic Syrian version of the dish.”

The tabouleh, a Levantine side dish comprised of parsley, bulgur wheat, and a splash of lemon juice, is a perfect example of Altoubal’s commitment to authenticity when it comes to everything on the menu. For the Syrian-born restaurateur, the focus has always been on fresh, traditional Syrian and Mediterranean ingredients. Ingredients include vegetables, grains, lemon, garlic, beef, lamb, and chicken prepared the “old world” way.

“And nothing in my kitchen goes to waste!” he confirmed.

A menu rooted in tradition

Originally from Damascus, Syria, Altoubal worked at a small family-owned sandwich shop where he learned all about Arabic foods. It was there that he developed a passion for the business. He always dreamed of having his own restaurant, but his journey to the United States led him to a career in real estate instead.

Eventually, Altoubal’s dream became a reality when, in 2005, he left his job to open Zayna Mediterranean. The restaurant, named after his daughter, showcases family recipes prepared the traditional Syrian way.

A meat lover’s paradise

Many traditional Syrian meals include savory meats like lamb and chicken, prepared with a secret blend of Arabic spices. If it’s your first time trying the food at Zayna (or if you’re just really hungry) Altoubal recommends the Grill Sampler Plate, which features hearty servings of lamb kifta, chicken shish tawook, and chicken shawarma. The dish also comes with the essential Syrian sides: rice, green beans, salad with a signature house dressing, garlic yogurt sauce, and house-made pita bread.

If you like your meat with a kick, ask for the shatta—it’s a signature Middle Eastern hot sauce mixed with lemon juice.

Grill Sampler Plate at Zayna Mediterranean

Grill Sampler Plate at Zayna Mediterranean (Credit: Dana Sullivan)

A vegetarian and vegan’s paradise, too

Despite the abundance of meat on the menu, Syrian cuisine is vegetarian- and vegan-friendly.

“One of our most popular dishes is the cauliflower,” said Altoubal, which is served lightly fried with tahini. “Our food vendor is always shocked by how much cauliflower we go through in a week!”

Another vegetarian staple is the mujadara, a middle eastern side made with rice pilaf and lentils topped with caramelized onions and toasted almonds.

“We were the first restaurant to serve mujadara in Tucson—nobody else had it for the longest time,” revealed Altoubal.

The Vegetarian Plate is also a hit and arrived generously portioned with house-made hummus, baba ghannouj, salad, zaatar pita, falafel, grape leaves, and salad.

Vegetarian Plate at Zayna Mediterranean

Vegetarian Plate at Zayna Mediterranean (Credit: Dana Sullivan)

Third location’s the charm

With a slew of flavorful offerings for meat and veggie eaters alike, it’s no wonder that Zayna outgrew its original location on Catalina Highway, formerly housed in what is now Le Buzz Caffe. The restaurant also outgrew its second location at 4122 E. Speedway, in which Tito & Pep now resides.

“Everyone was always complaining about the parking,” Altoubal said. He explained that it could no longer accommodate their growing clientele.

Now at home in its third location just off of Speedway, Zayna features a three-room floor plan decorated with photographs from Syria that Altoubal took himself. And, of course, there is plenty of parking in the spacious lot.

Facade at Zayna Mediterranean

Facade at Zayna Mediterranean (Credit: Dana Sullivan)

Zayna Mediterranean is located at 1138 N.Belvedere Ave. For more information, call (520) 881-4348 or visit zaynamediterranean.com.

Dana Sullivan is a content writer and editor with a passion for food, fitness, and fashion. Originally from the East Coast, she's currently exploring/eating her way through Tucson one restaurant at a time.

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