I spend a little too much time on Yelp — finding new restaurants, checking up on old ones and getting mad about reviews I don’t like. Somehow, though, Zait & Za’atar has managed to slip right under my nose for two years. Normally in this situation I might be tempted to blame an unassuming exterior, but how could I miss the neon red falafel sign right outside the door? Either way, it’s clear that Zait & Za’atar deserves a little more attention from the Macalester community. From its cozy atmosphere to its amazing menu, the place strikes a high note with lovers of food and culture alike. I visited twice. The first time, I sat down with the head chef and son of the owner, Hassan Elbakri, to learn more.
The first thing you notice when walking in the door is the music, which Elbakri describes as a mix of traditional Palestinian songs, including wedding songs and others with a lively beat. Many of the atmospheric choices have been made to communicate traditional Palestinian culture. Elbakri values this idea of communicating a culture as much as his food. There are old pictures covering the walls and even the name, Zait & Za’atar, has a specific meaning in Arabic. Za’atar is a Middle Eastern condiment made with thyme and sumac. Zait & Za’atar is dedicated to getting people to ask questions, and to portray Palestinian culture in its own light. Seriously, next time you go, ask about the pictures! That’s what they’re there for.
Zait & Za’atar’s cultural mission is sound, but what is a restaurant without its food? (Spoiler alert: it’s pretty good.) Like most chefs, Elbakri cites his experienced palate as his primary source for culinary knowledge and points towards his years working in a local Chipotle kitchen. Luckily for us, his years of training at Chipotle paid off. On my first visit, I tried the msakhan chicken sandwich and za’atar fries. The msakhan chicken was perfect for the Minnesota cold, coming to the table piping hot and wrapped in pillowy naan with marinated chicken, olive oil, sumac and caramelized onions. The chicken had a surprising amount of spice, but it wasn’t overpowering. This makes sense, considering that Zait & Za’atar gets all of its spices from a relative’s centuries-old spice mill in Jordan. The caramelized onions play a nice supporting role to the chicken, giving the sandwich a nice crunch to work with the soft bread. Unlike the Middle Eastern- inspired taste of the msakhan chicken, the za’atar fries had a little more American influence. However, they still managed to carry the same Middle Eastern flavors I expected, thanks to za’atar. The fries were crisp on the outside and warm on the inside.Za’atar gave them a unique flavor — no ketchup necessary. Finally, I was able to try all three of their specialty drinks: cardamom tea, hibiscus tea and mint lemonade. All three were perfect for the upcoming warm weather (fingers crossed) with the cardamom being particularly refreshing, the hibiscus carrying subtle notes of honey and my personal favorite, mint lemonade, combining sour lemons, sugar and mint into one indescribably good package.
On my second visit, my friends and I tried the chicken shawarma and falafel. The chicken shawarma, made with a laundry list of spices, was just as good as the msakhan chicken, but the real star of the show here was the falafel. Zait & Za’atar is known for having the best falafel in the area and I have to agree. It is perfect, losing none of the flavor of the chickpeas in the frying process. According to Elbakri, falafel takes three days to make, and my friends and I all agree it is the best falafel in town. All in all, the food at Zait & Za’atar is flavorful and fresh, and I cannot recommend it enough. My favorite part is the price. You can buy two entrees, two drinks and a side of falafel for around 20 dollars. Elbakri says they don’t expect to be millionaires, just trying to make people happy with their food. In my book, Zait & Za’atar is a real winner and perfect for a broke college student like me. If you only take one thing out of this article, try the falafel!
Zait & Za’atar is located on 1626 Selby Ave in St. Paul and open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.