Petra is a famous archaeological site in Jordan dating to about 300 B.C. that in 2007 was named one of the new seven wonders of the world.
Mohammad Albeik’s Petra Bakery & Restaurant on Odana Road on Madison’s West Side is a wonder in its own right, with an interesting and casual menu, fantastic food, great service and reasonable prices.
No amount of hyperbole can describe the chicken shawarma tacos ($7.99). They’re on the menu under fusion, where it says they’re only available on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but now they’re available all the time, Albeik said.
My server, working the large, almost empty room by herself at lunchtime on a Friday, brought out two plates, each with two tacos in a metal holder. These, a Mediterranean twist on tacos, had a thin, soft, tender pita shell bursting with roasted, minced chicken, pickles, tomatoes, garlic sauce, parsley and sumac. The combination was unbeatable.
Equally stunning was the golden, elongated beef/sfeeha pie ($3.50), a Lebanese meat pie filled with ground beef and lamb sautéed in olive oil with onion and Roma tomato paste, giving it a touch of sweetness. The Arabic white cheese ($2.50) version couldn’t touch it.
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My 16-year-old daughter was overjoyed with the stuffed falafel ($1.50 per piece). The crisp, deep-fried chickpea ball was stuffed with onions, chili paste and sumac and coated with sesame seeds. It will be hard for either of us to go back to eating plain falafel, which Petra also serves.
The thick lentil soup ($3.50 for a cup) was another highlight with red lentils, curry, onions and cumin.
The mixed appetizer plate ($9.99), a beautiful, expansive platter, held hummus, baba ghanoush, and muthawama, served with three fresh pitas. The baba ghanoush was the only weak link. The eggplant was mashed rather than puréed and didn’t have a lot of flavor, beyond the garlic sauce drizzled on top. But eating bites of it with the other two elements made it work. The homemade hummus was excellent, topped with chickpeas and olive oil, and so was the muthawama, a Lebanese yogurt sauce with mayonnaise and garlic.
The hot saj, a thin flatbread, ordered with Arabic white cheese and black olives ($5.50) was cut into eight slices, prepared like those irresistible rollups popular at potlucks. The cheese was understated, so the olives dominated. Next time, I’d go with one of the five other versions. As my daughter said, the black olives made it taste too much like pizza.
The outstanding Jerusalem salad ($6.99 for the small) was a large, liquidy bowl of tahini, a somewhat bitter sesame condiment, with diced cucumbers, tomatoes, lots of parsley, lemon and onions with pools of olive oil on top.
Petra has “bakery” in its name before “restaurant,” and almost everything in the bakery cases is tantalizing. There’s also a whole rack of Petra’s pitas packaged to go. Some bakery items are help yourself and you have to delicately pull back the plastic wrap and use tongs to extract what you want.
The bakery turns out three kinds of baklava. I had two small cubes ($2 each) of the walnut and pistachio, and it was simply the best you’ll find in Madison, with flaky phyllo and a sweet, nutty filling. Cashew is the third option.
The big, crisp sesame cookie ($1) was also a treat. Less successful, but still good, were the santarosas, or date bars, that come in plain and sesame.
The main thing to go for is the chocolate-pistachio Turkish delight, ($7.99) a sweet, starchy confection Albeik gets from Jordan every week. There are usually eight varieties, he said.
The traditional yogurt drink ($3.99), made with savory yogurt, not sweet, was worthwhile, and available in jugs in the small grocery area in front. The restaurant’s signature drink, my server said, is its sweet-tart frozen mint lemonade ($4.99). It’s a nonalcoholic can’t-miss item for people who like mojitos.
Petra also serves Middle Eastern breakfasts and plays up that it’s alcohol-free and 100% halal, or permissible under Islamic law. After my meal, when I asked to talk to Albeik, my server said he had gone to pray and would be back in 30 minutes.
When he returned, I was surprised to meet such a young man. Albeik, 23, moved from Jordan to Milwaukee in 2018 after studying in Russia for two years.
On March 1, 2021, he bought the former Nile restaurant with a friend, Mohammad Jaradeh, after learning online that it was for sale. They tweaked the name and made it Nile Bakery and Restaurant.
The dining room is spacious and comfortable. Some of the new booths have odd slanted backs and the blend of mismatched wallpaper, leftover from the Nile, has a unique charm. The napkins are white linen, and the Middle Eastern music played at an appropriately low volume.
Albeik was living in Milwaukee, where he worked in a bakery, until last June, when he bought out his partner and moved to Madison. He changed the name to Petra Bakery & Restaurant at the beginning of this year.
He owns Petra with his father, Mahmoud Albeik, who comes to town every six months from Jordan for an extended stay to make sure everything is running smoothly. Albeik’s cousins work in the kitchen.
Albeik said he learned to cook from his parents, who owned a little shop in Jordan where for a year they made fresh hummus, baba ghanoush and falafel, among other items. After they closed their store, they bought a farm and raised animals, producing only organic meat and vegetables. His father is now in the construction business, Albeik said.
At Petra, everything is also organic. Eating organic is something that’s important to my daughter, and even without knowing that about Petra, when she tried the stuffed falafel she said, “This is the best thing I’ve ever eaten.”
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