Gyro Heroes

This tiny restaurant on the far eastside offers Middle Eastern food that's among Tucson's best

My biggest complaint about Zayna Mediterranean Café: It's more than 10 miles from my house.

This little strip-mall counter-service joint on the far eastside, at Tanque Verde Road and Catalina Highway, offers some of the best Middle Eastern food you'll find in Tucson—and the gyro is absolutely fantastic.

We first visited Zayna on a recent weekday evening with friends Robin and Beckey. The menu comprises most of the dishes you'd expect to find at a Mediterranean/Middle Eastern restaurant, and we set out to sample as many of them as we could. We ordered the baba ghannuj, tabbouleh and grape leaves as appetizers (each $3). Beckey selected the gyro plate ($8.75), and Garrett picked the kifta (minced beef) kabab plate ($8.50), while Robin went for the lamb kabab plate ($11.50). I ordered the combination plate, with lamb kabab, falafel, grape leaves and hummus ($11.50).

It soon became apparent that Zayna was having an off night. The young woman working the counter was regularly coughing (something that was rather off-putting, especially in these days of swine flu). Later, a man we hadn't seen before came over, apologized and explained that he'd been called in to help out, because the woman was having an asthma attack. I bring this up for two reasons: One, the disruption may explain some of the less-than-stellar elements of our meal, and two, I was impressed that he explained what was going on, allowing us to understand why the food was delayed, and easing our concerns over the young woman's coughing. Communication is good.

Food soon started coming, and we liked most of what we received. The baba ghannuj (perhaps the food with more spellings than any other), smoked eggplant dip, was creamy and delicious. The grape leaves (vegetarian) sang with a nice mix of earthiness (from the rice and other ingredients) and citrus. The tabbouleh proved to be the only seriously disappointing dish of the evening; the parsley salad lacked wheat and was overpowered by too much lemon. The pita bread that came with all of the starters was delivered warm and earned raves all around.

Our main courses came soon after the appetizers.

The lamb kabab and kifta kabab were moist and perfectly cooked. Far too often, kabab is overcooked or allowed to become dry; that's not the case at Zayna. On the other hand, the meats weren't seasoned as well as they could have been; Garrett, Robin and I all agreed that the meats bordered on bland, but were nonetheless tasty when wrapped in pita and smothered in the accompanying yogurt (tzatziki) sauce.

Blandness was not an issue regarding the hummus and the falafel on my plate; both were flavorful and enjoyable. The falafel ball was moist yet held together well; the hummus was delicious, with just the right amount of garlic. However, garlic was far too abundant in the green beans that came on Robin's and Garrett's plates. I believe it's almost impossible to put too much garlic in a dish, but that happened with those green beans. Garrett also noted that the rice was undercooked.

But then there was Beckey's gyro plate.

While Robin, Garrett and I all found minor flaws in our meals, Beckey did not (save the undercooked rice). Her gyro was splendid—spicy, meaty, moist and not overly fatty. When covered with tzatziki and placed in the pita, it was fabulous.

Though we were all stuffed, we decided to finish off our meals with Zayna's lone dessert choice, baklawa (often spelled as baklava, $1 each). The small squares of filo dough, pistachios and honey were stellar; it turns out the baklawa is shipped in from a maker in Michigan. In any case, it was a fine way to end the meal.

Garrett and I returned several days later for a Saturday lunch. After being wowed by Beckey's gyro, Garrett ordered the gyro sandwich combination ($7.95), while I got the chicken shawarma sandwich combo ($7.95); the combos come with Zayna fries (seasoned fried-potato slices) and a drink, and we each enjoyed freshly brewed iced tea (green and mint, respectively). We also decided to split the hummus appetizer ($3).

Zayna offers seating at several tables outside, but we decided to sit at one of the seven indoor tables (three four-tops and four two-tops) and look around at the various posters depicting Syrian art and ruins hanging on the brightly colored walls. Fun fact: The poster directly above our table depicted the ruins of Qanawat.

The hummus with piping-hot pita was again fantastic (although we only received one piece and had to ask for another) and tied us over nicely until the sandwiches arrived. Garrett's gyro sandwich was, as expected, delicious, yet simple: It consisted of pita, gyro, tzatziki, lettuce and tomato. My chicken sandwich was also tasty; it included pickles and what seemed to be hummus (though the menu called it "garlic sauce"), and it was almost as good as the gyro sandwich—which is high praise, indeed, since Garrett said the gyro may have been the best he's ever had.

Zayna Mediterranean Cafe—largely due to that fantastic gyro—is a true gem, serving up Middle Eastern fare that is among Tucson's best. It's a reason for central-city residents to be jealous of eastsiders.

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