Hassan Elbakri never wanted to inherit the family construction business. Hassan’s interest was in food.
Luckily, his dad Arafat Elbakri, the Palestinian-born owner of said local construction company, was handy in the kitchen. Arafat wanted to show the world what he could do in the kitchen, as well as in the construction zone. So the family opened Zait and Za’atar, Selby Avenue’s new fast-casual Palestinian-owned restaurant.
“I say I’m doing it tooth and nail,” says Arafat, “Tooth for the food, and nail for the construction.”
His kids groan at his way with words, and so does his wife Adriana, (“The best woman in the whole country,”) who also happens to be an English teacher, which is how the two met thirty years ago in college.
“But she never taught me a thing,” jokes Arafat.
Zait and Za’atar operates in many ways like a standard-issue shawarma takeout joint, with a little more decorative warmth, and a lot more attention to detail than a fluorescent-lit chain.
Zait and Za'atar
There is no gyros cone rotating on a spit, and the shawarma here are tightly wrapped flutes of heavily spiced beef, pickles, and tahini rather than the overflowing standard-issue fluffy Greek style Gyro. It’s a very good shawarma.
Arafat says he and his family are “big critics” of local Middle Eastern restaurants, and when I ask what sets his cooking apart, he says it’s not for him to say, but his fans, who tell him most of all that they enjoy the freshness of his food.
“We don’t have anything in the freezer except for the French fries,” says Arafat, who’s extremely proud of his scratch kitchen, and says he was surprised to hear that restaurants often pre-cook food before service.
Those French fries provide the base for the Shawarma fries that Hassan insisted they put on the menu. Arafat was initially skeptical of the Middle Eastern-American street food mashup. It’s now one of their more popular items.
Arafat tells me he has a relative in Jordan who hand-grinds and blends the spices that they use in the restaurant, and since having them shipped is a bureaucratic pain he’s yet to master, he travels home to retrieve them.
“I visit my family when I’m there too,” he says.
Arafat is also excited to be serving some lesser-known Middle Eastern dishes, like Kushari, an Egyptian street food dish with rice, pasta, chickpeas, lentils, fried onions, and a savory red sauce.
“It’s everything you could possibly want in a dish without meat,” he says. He’s also super proud to offer musakhan, a traditional Palestinian dish of sumac marinated chicken, which you can also get wrapped in a pita, shawarma style.
While Arafat says that he and the family are learning the restaurant business “the hard way,” they are getting a very important detail right, and that is to go slow. They haven’t done any advertising yet, choosing first to get their systems down, also starting with a very limited menu.
“At first I wanted to do everything I know,” says Arafat. “But my friends [in the restaurant business] said ‘Please, reduce your menu.’” So he did.
But he has bigger dreams, including space to offer cooking classes, as well as a weekly special where he’s not relegated to the foods of the Middle East.
“North African food is amazing, and so is Sri Lankan food,” he says.
But most importantly, he says the restaurant represents a very important urge, and that is to connect with others.
“Food is a better way to tell people who you are,” he says.
1626 Selby Ave., St. Paul