The ancient city of Petra was unknown to the Western world for centuries. Petra in San Luis Obispo is still being unearthed by local palates in search of shawarma, lebni and baba ghanough.
The Aburashed family opened their Higuera Street eatery in November 2008 after a yearlong, extensive, top-to-bottom overhaul of what used to be a flower shop.
All that effort resulted in a bright, casual space with gleaming stainless and welcoming wood accents, plus a downstairs area that can be used for restaurant overflow or reserved for groups up to 40 people.
If the Aburashed name is familiar, it’s because they’ve been longtime residents of San Luis Obispo. Todd arrived from Jordan in 1970, and his wife, Sana, joined him in 1984.
By 1988, they opened the Sidewalk Market on Osos Street, a unique hybrid of an American neighborhood deli and a small Middle Eastern grocery. At Petra, Todd and Sana are joined by the whole family — sons Samir and Rammy and daughters Lalia and Summer — and the menu is an accessible nod to their multicultural tastes.
In addition to authentic Middle Eastern fare, you’ll also find items such as pasta and pizza.
As Samir explained, “we wanted to have the favorite things we eat at home. Of course I’m biased, but I think my mom makes the best angel hair pasta anywhere, and my dad always wanted to do pizza.”
Indeed, Sana is typically the one at the stove at Petra, serving up such orders as lebni (an Arabic yogurt cream cheese drizzled with olive oil) or sandwiches filled with baba ghanough (a roasted eggplant spread seasoned with tahini, lemon and garlic).
Everything possible is housemade throughout the day, from daily soups, to the tabouleh (a refreshing, finely chopped mix of parsley, green onion, cucumbers, tomatoes, bulgar and spices), to the falafel (a classic and versatile Middle Eastern food made from ground chickpeas, cilantro and parsley rolled into a ball and fried).
The dough restaurant’s fresh pita dough is used in the hand-tossed pizzas, giving the crust a nice, slightly airy texture. You can order up your own toppings, or choose from one of the four signature pizzas such as a Supreme with red sauce, pepperoni and Canadian bacon, or the Greek feta with pesto, spinach, onions, tomatoes and artichokes.
Like many Mediterranean restaurants, Petra offers numerous choices for vegetarians: a Greek salad, veggie pasta, and the aforementioned falafel, among others.
However, this is also a place to find authentic Middle Eastern treatments of meat — all marinated overnight in housemade recipes, then thinly sliced, layered onto a vertical spit and roasted to perfection.
Most people are probably familiar with the beef/lamb gyro, and at Petra you’ll also find shawarma, similar to a gyro but made with either just chicken or lamb.
Most of Petra’s meats and veggie items are available either as sandwiches made with that fresh baked pita, or as an entrée plate with your choice of sides.
If you want to add a little kick to your dish, go for some spicy “shatta” — a Mediterranean hot sauce, and cool your mouth back down with a Firestone or Dogfish IPA draft.
With more and more people discovering Petra, “I’m really excited about the future,” said Samir.
“We want to offer diverse food, especially for people looking for something a bit later at night, and we want to treat you like you’re coming to eat in our home.”