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Zara set to dazzle

First bite at downtown Tacoma's new Mediterranean spot

Samar Hamameh and Chef James Barbara bring the flavors of the Mediterranean to Tacoma. All photography by Jennifer Johnson

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It was good to be part of the breath of new life Tuesday evening at Zara Mediterranean Cuisine. Many a city councilman attended the private reception as well as other hand-selected guests. Mayor Marilyn Strickland echoed my sentiment as if I'd said it out loud, "I'm glad to see this space come to life after being dark for so long".  She refers to the corner of 15th and Pacific Avenue. Pacific Grill and the United Way offices can be seen in the 180-degree view from the circular bar.

On the second floor above Rainier Pacific Bank, it's a somewhat tricky locale. Commerce Street is where entrance to Tacoma's latest restaurant is found. The outdoor patio area set-up and ready for use. That patio was a summer evening favorite of mine from the days of Sea Grill, the building's former occupant.

Back in July Chef James Barbara had mentioned to me that a woman from the Middle East had been brought in to teach them about traditional Greek, Lebanese and Turkish food and ingredients and ensure authenticity. After sampling many of the appetizers to be offered it was a pleasure to actually meet Samar Hamameh, a key player in why the flavors of the night were so bright. From the country of Jordan, Hamameh presence in Tacoma lends a lot of weight to chef's earlier promise that the cuisine will not be "... bastardized to suit the American public". 

In his younger years while in the Navy, Barbara spent time in the Mediterranean before landing in the Northwest and creating Italian, French, and French-Cajun and Pan-Asian dishes. Those years spent immersed in European flavors have definitely prepared him for this current endeavor.

Joining me for the private tasting of eight menu items were Kevin Freitas of and fellow food lover Mike Ritchie.

I am a firm believer that tzatziki makes the world go round. I will eat it on anything. It certainly makes a world of difference where kufta and fried kibbeh are concerned. The spiced bulgar wheat balls held a mix of seasoned lamb, beef, white onion and pine nuts. Sans sauce they're on the dry side.

Rice and vegetable stuffed dolmades were a first for Ritchie. Moist with a slight lemon hint, they needed to no sauce.

Feta cheese, diced tomato, seasoned onion and cucumber sat on sliced rounds of olive oil brushed baguette in the Greek bruschetta. Juicy chicken kebabs, smoky lamb, and spiced kufta meatballs, chicken sumac rolls - the dishes kept coming.

The first food sampled, however, remained the table favorite; tabouleh salad wraps. They were so simple and packed an enormous flavor pow. Mint, lemon and garlic with cucumber, onion and parsley and the background note of nuttiness from bulgar wheat made for one excellent combination of flavors and texture. Crisp romaine lettuce leaves act as a boat bearing precious cargo.

Scanning the menu as we munched away trying to keep up with rapid fire food presenting, I saw general manager Chip Venzone held true to his word. There's not one pork dish on it. I also saw pricing to be quite higher than originally quoted. The dinner menu does offer kebabs, shawerma (marinated, fire-pit roasted meats), mousaka, a half chicken and vegetarian dishes for less than $20. Lamb and other red meats and seafood entrees range from $22-$39 at dinner and $11-$15 at lunch.  Served with Mediterranean fries, sandwiches come in sharak bread - think tortilla roll-up stuffed with shawerma, tomato, onion and sauce ($8-$11).  

It is important to note that vegetarian needs have been taken into consideration with more than 20 items spread from salads and appetizers to hearty sandwiches, kebabs and casserole.

Near the tasty morsel parade end, music kicked on and three bejeweled bra top and hip-hugging skirt clad belly dancers began shaking what their mama gave 'em. I scanned faces at neighboring tables and saw a mix of delight, dread and embarrassment. Obviously these nice folks had not been primed for this sneak peak of the entertainment to be had on Friday and Saturday evenings. A whole lot of bare flesh soon came our way effectively killing our conversation as my male friends paid the dancer the attention she rightly commanded. We were treated to close-ups of choreographed gyrations and expert hip thrusts using abdominal muscles I'm certain I will never posses. I chuckled thinking of how husbands and wives might respond in that situation Venzone was right, athletic and beautiful is an apt description for the dancers.

Dessert arrived and I had to adjust the way I review pistachios. Their addition to baklava gave me pause. The added salt balanced the sweet of honey and walnut in a surprisingly welcome way. I did not know I wanted that from baklava.

Zara opens Friday, Aug. 19.

Validated parking is available in the adjacent Pacific Avenue garage and Commerce Street lot.

Zara Mediterranean Cuisine

11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Thursday
open till 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday
1498 Pacific Ave., Tacoma

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Comments for "Zara set to dazzle" (4)

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Annette said on Aug. 19, 2011 at 9:48am

I can't wait to try this restaurant!!! Your article makes it sound fantastic!!!!!!

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GrittyCityFood said on Aug. 19, 2011 at 10:37am

Can't wait to go and review on our site! Looks great!

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Jeremy said on Aug. 23, 2011 at 8:32am

Great Article!!! Sounds like an amazing culinary experience!! Can't wait to experience it for myself this weekend ; )

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carla said on Nov. 14, 2011 at 4:30pm

I went there, the food was very little and taste bad and was very expensive

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