Za’atar Mediterranean Restaurant & Bakery: Simple, fresh & authentic Middle Eastern

October 25, 2019
By Kathy McMahon
By Kathy McMahon

“Using canned stuff is easy, but we make everything from scratch.”

Simple, authentic Middle Eastern food featuring fresh ingredients. That’s what it’s all about at Za’atar Mediterranean Restaurant & Bakery.

“Using canned stuff is easy, but we make everything from scratch,” says owner Ari Baban with pride.

Baban, a Kurdish immigrant from Iraq, came to Tucson in 1997 and opened his first restaurant—with his mom—the following year. His current enterprise, Za’atar Mediterranean, launched in the fall of 2014 on north Country Club. Three years later, Za’atar moved to its current, larger location on Country Club south of Grant.

Chicken Kabob Plate at Za'atar Mediterranean
Chicken Kabob Plate at Za’atar (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Where does the name come from? In Arabic, za’atar literally means thyme, but in Middle Eastern restaurants it’s often used to refer to an aromatic blend of different herbs and sesame seeds. According to Baban, “People eat za’atar with yogurt and bake it into bread. We use it a lot.”

House made, house baked

Baban notes that Za’atar’s menu consists of all his own recipes and creations. “You can get hummus everywhere, and each one different. We soak the garbanzo beans overnight and cook them for hours until they are really soft,” says Baban.

The payoff is on the plate. Presented with feathered edges and a generous float of olive oil, Za’atar’s light and airy hummus perfectly balances the flavors of tahini and lemon. The mashui appetizer, a rustic dip of roasted and lightly pureed tomato, eggplant, bell pepper, and onion, makes a good complement, its earthy texture and smoky-charred flavor playing off the silky hummus. Grab a triangle of warm house-made pita bread and you’ve got the appetizer trifecta.

Not only the pita bread but also the flatbread, samoon, and desserts emerge daily from a brick oven that Baban built by hand. “In Syria, every neighborhood has its own oven. You will see people going back and forth to the oven throughout the day. Fresh bread is a big part of the culture,” says Baban.

Some menu suggestions

The plates, served with rice or pita and salad, are a popular favorite. The chicken kebab plate is lightly dusted with brick-red, tangy sumac and is served with toum—a dense sauce made with pungent raw garlic, lemon, and olive oil, blended into a creamy emulsion.

For the gyro plate, meat is the star, with the tzatziki sauce a close second. A mixture of ground beef and lamb seasoned with a dynamic mixture of herbs and spices, this Middle Eastern classic is packed tightly around a spool, cooked rotisserie-style, and sliced into fat ribbons.

Hummus and Mashui at Za'atar Mediterranean
Hummus and Mashui at Za’atar (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Sandwiches run the gamut from well-spiced shawarmas to gyros and falafel. All of them are served in samoon and made with either tahini, toum or tzatziki. All are priced at $8 or less.

As you walk in, peruse the chalkboard outside, where specials might include a lamb shank or baked eggplant dish, which Baban’s sister often makes when helping out in the kitchen. The most expensive item on the menu—the beef kabob—runs $13, with salads going for half that. Prices for specials vary.

For dessert, baklava reigns supreme. You’ll find it made in various shapes featuring different types of dough and a variety of nuts, from pistachios to hazelnuts to cashews. Alternatively, try the osh el bulbul—a miniature “bird’s nest” of crispy spun dough that’s not too sweet, with pistachios standing in for eggs.

Drink up

The Arabic coffee, served in a traditional copper ibrik, packs a delicious punch. Made from beans ground to a powder then brewed filter-less, it’s often spiked with a hint of cardamom and sometimes made with a small amount of sugar. Give the sediment time to settle before taking your first sip. Other great choices: rosewater-infused lemonade or iced mint tea.

In the next few months, Baban says, “We are hoping to expand and create a ‘social bar,’ a bar with no alcohol. People will be able to hang out and have a non-alcoholic beer or cocktail.”

Indoors or out

This past summer, Za’atar gussied up a bit, with new booths lining the west wall in place of tables. Pomegranate-colored walls, colorful glass lamps, and live plants contribute to Za’atars homey, unassuming feel.

Interior at Za'atar Mediterranean
Interior at Za’atar (Credit: Jackie Tran)

When weather permits, head out back to a patio complete with twinkling lights and a fountain.

“In the Middle East, people love to eat outdoors so we try to create an atmosphere that takes you there,” remarks Baban.

It’s the perfect place to gather friends for a birthday or special occasion. Baban creates gorgeous mezzes (appetizer platters) and other delights to suit your crowd, whether you want to eat at the restaurant or have an event catered.

To market, to market

But maybe you like to cook and want to re-create a taste of Za’atar at home? The restaurant offers a curated selection of grocery items for sale.

“Everyone would say, ‘I love this spice or I love the tea, where do I get it?’” Baban explains. “I started the small market so people can get what they want here. Olive oils, sweets, spices, and other special ingredients.”

So the next time you’re craving the flavors of the Middle East, in a restaurant, event hall, or at home, head straight to Za’atar Mediterranean and order up the fresh taste of authenticity.

Za’atar Mediterranean Restaurant & Bakery, 2320 N. Country Club, is open daily 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. For more information, visit

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