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Beyond Mediterranean: Zaatar Lebanese Grill serves up regional specialties worthy of exploring 

click to enlarge Zaatar’s hummus is classically creamy and presented simply, although a spicy version is also available. - RON BECHTOL
  • Ron Bechtol
  • Zaatar’s hummus is classically creamy and presented simply, although a spicy version is also available.
The spice mix known as za’atar — typically a blend of thyme, oregano, salt, sesame seeds and the puckery dried berry known as sumac — is a thread running through Middle Eastern dishes from Amman to Tehran. The San Antonio geographical equivalent may well be the corner of Bluemel and Wurzbach roads, a block west of Interstate 10.

There you’ll find fresh halal meats, flatbreads and an astonishing array of Middle and Far Eastern products at Ali Baba International Food Market. You’ll also find a Persian eggplant dip at Pasha Mediterranean Grill, a Turkish salad and Greek gyros at Naara Cafe & Hookah Bar, honey-soaked pastries and more at Baklovah Bakery & Sweets, and the familiar and universal hummus and kabobs everywhere — including at Zaatar Lebanese Grill.

A recent visit to Zaatar was a reminder of how food unites in a sometimes-fractious region — and how subtle differences can also emerge in its regional variations.

Zaatar’s mezze plate is a good, if obvious, place to start. It’s anchored by a serving of the familiar tabouli, the mix of chopped parsley with cracked wheat, onion and tomato, all bathed in a bright, lemony dressing. “Bright” is the operative word here, since the dish felt just-made fresh, and it was light on the sometimes-overbearing bulgur. Fattoush, a salad served with toasted pita, was also an option on the plate, but you need to specify. And since tabouli is served with a number of other plates, I’d go for the fattoush here.

The mezze also included toasty orbs of falafel, that also-ubiquitous mix of ground chickpeas and more. It proved that this now-worldwide street food is worthy of its popularity when fashioned by knowing hands.

Chickpeas also came in the form of hummus, a dip so well known that many are unaware of its Egyptian origins — at least, according to some scholars. Zaatar’s version is classically creamy and presented simply, although a spicy version is also available. If there’s any of the sometimes-included tahini, its contribution was slight. Perky prevailed over smoky in Zaatar’s roasted eggplant baba ghanouj. The spelling alone suggests a variation, and it’s one that leaned delightfully chunky and tart. I’d gladly take either variant on top of some good pita.

The terms panini, wraps, pizzas and even bowls appear on Zaatar’s menu, an indication of food’s globalization. But the difference in, say, a Lebanese pizza and one from New York or Naples, lies in the details. Yes, you can get a cheese topping at a typical Lebanese bakery, or furen, but it’s likely to be briny akawi cheese, whose origins are actually in Israel. Spicy ground beef is another popular topping, and since the recipe doubtless varies from baker to baker, it would be foolish to try to tease out all the spices here — except to say that there was an appealing, slightly sour edge balancing the spice that might come from pomegranate molasses or za’atar itself. Or not. Order the lahme pizza and let me know what you think.

Kibbeh comes in many forms across the Middle East, including baked and uncooked. The pair of meat “dumplings” I ordered were delivered atop a pita. Their deep-fried and well-seasoned cracked wheat casing, which also might contain a little ground beef, enveloping an equally well-seasoned beef mix that included chopped walnut. There was also hint of cinnamon. The accompanying creamy, yogurt dip might or might not have contained garlic. Credit to Zaatar for tailoring each condiment to its plate and not simply sending out a universal tzatziki, but the result was that I lost track. No confusion as to the result, though: good. Great, even.

It would be easy to make a meal of small plates at Zaatar. I haven’t even mentioned its stuffed grape leaves or spinach-topped pizza. But it would be a shame to miss out on the kabobs. Of course there are kabobs. And the simple, succulent lamb version, served over golden-hued rice with onions — both grilled and not — and charred tomato and sour pickles would have been a stunning plate, even without its side of tabouli and hummus. There was just a hint of chew, a touch of flame…

But I was even more impressed by the skewered sujook, a Lebanese ground beef sausage that managed to both confuse and delight the taste buds. Fenugreek? Chili powder? Citric acid was also somewhere in the mix. I love it when expectations are upended, and as a result, this might have been my favorite plate of the day — and a perfect reason to look beyond the standard “Mediterranean” moniker that many Middle Eastern restaurants give themselves in an abundance of geopolitical caution.

Zaatar Lebanese Grill
9323 Wurzbach Road | (210) 475-3699 |

Hours: Sunday-Thursday 11 a.m-9:30 p.m., Friday-Saturday, 11 am.-10 p.m.

Price point: Panini and main plates $10.95-$16.95

Best bets: Mezze Platter, Lebanese Pizzas, Kibbeh, Lamb Kabob, Sujook

The skinny:
Zaatar Lebanese Grill showcases the best of pan-Middle Eastern cuisine with subtle, country-specific variations. The usual kabobs — try the lamb — are expertly executed, as are standards such as tabouli, hummus and baba gannouj. But it’s worth trying the kitchen’s take on fried kibbeh, stuffed with spiced ground beef, and the sausage known as sujook in skewered or sandwich form to get a feel for regional differences. The space is bright and welcoming, service is friendly and the experience is rewarding.

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