Because of its large Lebanese population, Wichita has more than its share of Mediterranean restaurants.
And Wichita diners are more knowledgeable than most Midwesterners about Lebanese cuisine. We know which fattoush we like, who has the best baba ghanoush, and the difference between shawarma and gyro. We even know how to properly pronounce gyro (yeer-oh).
When it comes to Mediterranean cuisine, we’ve seen it all, tried it all. So I’m always happy when a newcomer brings a new twist.
Tahini Mediterranean Eatery opened in June in a tiny space on West Douglas in Delano that previously held Eastern Cuisine and Lotus Leaf before that. (Both restaurants are still open but have moved to bigger spots.) Tahini is owned by Anthony Pentele, a Utah-based businessman who hopes to expand the concept into nearby markets.
The tiny restaurant also offers a tiny menu. But it’s packed with items and preparations Wichita hasn’t seen, including its specialty – a crunchy and creamy dessert called kunafa.
The heart of the Tahini menu is build-your-own shawarma and gyro sandwiches. It offers two types of bread: fresh-baked pita and saj, which is a thin, flat bread conducive to making wraps. The restaurant also has three types of meats: chicken shawarma, beef shawarma and gyro meat, which is made with lamb and beef. Customers can see them rotating on spits in the open kitchen.
Tahini will dress your sandwich for you, or you can choose what goes on it. Toppings choices are tomato, lettuce, parsley, pickles, sumac onions and fresh mint. The list of sauces includes tahini, garlic, yogurt, avocado and “Srirachahini,” a Sriracha/tahini hybrid.
Those who can’t pick just one can order three mini pitas topped with any of the meat, veggie and sauce options. There’s also a vegetarian shawarma made with a blend of roasted eggplant, onion, zucchini and bell peppers.
The menu also includes a couple of salads, hummus, baba ghanoush and lentil soup.
I can’t stop thinking about Tahini’s hummus, which is made with a healthy dose of lemon juice that gives it a bright, citrusy flavor. It’s topped with my favorite hummus garnishes, too – whole garbanzo beans and a pool of olive oil. Only toasted pine nuts would have made this hummus better.
The hummus comes in a plastic to-go container, and the restaurant gives customers a second plastic to-go container filled with its soft pita bread for dipping. But it doesn’t give you quite enough. On both visits, I approached the counter asking for more pita bread, and on one occasion, I was handed a whole piece fresh from the oven. It was warm, pillowy and smelled faintly of yeast. On my next visit, I intend to ask if I can buy a bag of it.
I also loved Tahini’s fattoush salad, which is unlike any I’ve had locally. It has the standard ingredients – cucumber, tomato, diced onions and lettuce – but its dressing is creamy, and it comes with tiny but thick squares of crispy pita that almost have the texture of a cookie and add a perfect crunch to the salad. On my next visit, I also plan to order a large-sized fattoush with gyro meat on top.
But then will I have enough room for the lentil soup? Tahini’s version is swimming with lentils cooked just until chewy plus chunks of chickpeas and sliced cloves of garlic. A little cup of the thick, baked pita squares are served on the side. Dump them in and let them soak up the broth. One warning: This is a garlicky soup, and you’ll taste it for the rest of the day.
The gyro was my favorite Tahini sandwich. I ordered it on the saj. It came tightly wrapped, and the bread had visible grill marks on the outside. The meat, a combination of lamb and beef, was soft and chewy, and the sandwich was stuffed with tomatoes, sumac onions, lettuce and yogurt sauce – though not quite enough. It was little dry and could have used more sauce.
I ordered the beef shawarma on the soft pita bread, and it came with a chunky garlic sauce topping the beef, which was sitting on a bed of lettuce and fresh parsley and mint. The beef, on this visit, was so dry, it almost had a sandpaper texture. We tried it again on the next visit, and it was a little better. It was still dry but had more of a chewy, beef jerky texture. The meat seems like it needs more basting when turning on that spit.
The best thing I had at Tahini was the kunafa dessert, which is baklava’s less-sweet, not-as-sticky first cousin. The desserts are rectangular and made of crispy shreds of angel hair-like phyllo dough encasing a custard filling. It’s served warm, soaked in honey and comes with or without nuts. It’s the restaurant’s only dessert, and that’s just fine.
Tahini is a fast-casual restaurant where people order at the counter, and their food is served in plastic or Styrofoam to-go containers or in plastic baskets. The utensils are disposable plastic, and the drinks are self-serve. This no-frills approach likely is what helps keep the food so affordable. Nothing costs more than $6.50.
The dining room is small, so the tables are too, and it can be difficult to cram all those containers and baskets on the tabletops.
Ratings reflect the critic’s judgment of the food, service and atmosphere in relation to the price. If you would like to nominate a restaurant to be reviewed, call 316-268-6327.
Tahini Mediterranean Eatery
☆☆☆ out of four
Where: 613 W. Douglas, 316-263-1001
Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays; 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sundays
Type of food: Mediterranean
Cost: Sandwiches, salads, and appetizers are all $6.50. A bowl of lentil soup is $4.25. Side salads, a side order of potato wedges and side orders of hummus or baba ghanoush are $2.75.