The newest addition to Santa Fe’s Mediterranean restaurants is Peta Palace (112 W San Francisco St., 982-4401), formerly Istalif Cuisine, which can be found in a cozy downtown basement. The owner, Nick Amro, is excited to introduce more Mediterranean cuisine to the city and says that his favorite dish to serve is lamb. As you enter you will find a fast-food-style menu placed over the bar in a restaurant that does not serve alcohol. Turn to your left and find tasteful and unobtrusive decor surrounding the booths and tables that wouldn’t look out of place in an Indian restaurant. It adds up to a restaurant that seems to be in the throes of an identity crisis. Most of the food is good, but certain incongruities and small flaws prevent it from being as good as it could be. Perhaps Peta Palace’s true identity can be understood through an analysis of the fast-food staple, the hamburger.
Unlike really great gyros and shawarmas, even the best hamburgers are often undone by a fatal flaw—namely the dry crusty bun that the chef thinks might be overlooked if the burger is good enough. You finish all but the last bite of the burger and stop, at least for a moment, because there is one sliver of meat in a desert of stale bread.
This may seem like an odd thing to mention in a review about Middle Eastern restaurant. Yet, as I dipped a pita into the zesty tahini sauce from my lamb shawarma sandwich ($9) pooled into the bottom of the wrap, I marveled at the shawarma’s built-in solution to the “hamburger dilemma.”
The comparison of the shawarma to fast food suggests that I think of this restaurant as essentially on par with an upscale burger joint: good food made from good ingredients at a low price. This fits Peta Palace, where the lamb was flavorful and the tomatoes and pickles gave it a great profile overall. But my favorite part was probably the fries. Most restaurant fries are too thick and usually flavorless once you get past the skins. Not so with the frites here, which were like a more flavorful and somehow greasier version of McDonalds’.
Imagine an upscale Middle Eastern Chipotle, and you’ve got this place. The lunch specials offer generous portions for $7-$9, and the food comes quickly. A few other delicious concoctions include the chicken shawarma platter ($14), which was good but a bit expensive at twice the cost of the sandwich with the addition only of some lettuce and a bed of rice. The same went for the waitress-recommended gyro sandwich ($7) compared to the gyro platter ($14).
Where Peta Palace departs from the Chipotle model, with its platters, appetizers and desserts, seems like it needs the most work. I tried two appetizers: dolmas ($4), long-grain rice wrapped in grape-leaves and served cold, and the entertainingly named foul mudammas ($5), a dish of mashed fava beans with olive oil and assorted spices. I wouldn’t recommend the dolmas unless you’re a big fan of cold rice balls. The foul mudammas, on the other hand, were quite enjoyable. Although a little heavy on the olive oil, they had an elusive, tangy flavor that had me trying them again and again over the course of the meal.
The dessert menu is Spartan with four offerings, one of which is “dates,” where what you see is what you get: three dates on a plate at $1 per date. Not exactly a stellar deal, although the dates themselves were fine. Instead, I would recommend the baklava ($2.99), which was surprisingly good. After an entrée, two appetizers and a previous dessert, one taste of this convinced me that I had no choice but to make some room and finish the whole thing. The too-sweet honey flavor that compromises lesser baklavas is substituted at with delectable servings of cinnamon and brown sugar. If that sounds good to you, you will enjoy the baklava, which goes down great with a cup of their powerful Turkish coffee ($1.99).
Finally, I would say that this new Palace wins the award for the most entertaining menu I’ve read in quite a while. In addition to the delicious (and therefore poorly named) foul mudammas, you can also get Mixed Grill ($18) which may be worth the high price, since it comes with both “salad and homos.”