Published on March 14th, 2014 | by TLV News0
Petra Café Celebrates First Year on the Square
The first Petra Café opened in Oxford in 2005. Owner Maher Alqasas (Call me “Mike,” he sometimes says) had been running Copy Time since he moved here in 1996 from the outskirts of Jerusalem, and had decided it was time to get away from the printing business.
“I grew up in a restaurant,” he explained. “My father owned a restaurant for thirty-some-odd years. I’ve seen how it’s done, how it works. It’s always been exciting to me. I’ve always wanted a restaurant. But somehow I got into the printing business. I liked it, so I stayed into it for [some] twenty years.”
“When I first opened Petra, where the Oxford Steak Co. used to be, the timing was off for me—business was great. My kids are in college and high school now; nine years [ago], they were babies. They needed a lot of TLC [their mother and I] could not give, being in the restaurant all the time. That’s really and truly the reason we sold out. We only had that place for about 13 months, and I sold it just to pay attention to the family.”
Maher and I discuss that building for a moment and its cursed nature; it has sent beloved establishments like Two Stick and Red House to their graves, to name a couple. “It was a good location for us,” says Maher. “But it seems like everybody was cursed after I left. Nobody could do anything with that place, not even a bar. What killed that location is that stupid garbage [container] they put in front of it. When you drive by, you can’t see [the building].”
Maher moved overseas in 2007 and stayed until 2010. His wife Angela and their three kids joined him there for a school year. Of his family’s trip he said, “I wanted them to see what it was like overseas also. So I took them to Alexandria, Egypt, for a year—beautiful place. I enrolled them in American school. It was an experience for them.”
Maher decided to return to Oxford: “What else to do?” he jests. “Love Oxford, feel like it’s home, never planned to move anywhere else.” The decision to open Petra in its second home on West Jackson Avenue, across from James Food Center, was made. In February 2013, it moved from that small, cozy spot to their current historic locale. The building across from James Food Center was bulldozed last year to make way for retail establishments.
Third time’s a charm!
The current location of Petra Café—just off the Square on Jackson Avenue—is the same building that was once home to Wiley’s Shoe Shop, Parrish Baker Pub, and Taylor’s Pub. If you’ve been around town for a while, you probably remember this corner building’s renovation a few years ago; it desperately needed TLC from floor to ceiling! The outer wall is still the historic brick (probably from Wiley’s), but the remainder of the seating area is new, clean, and bright. Mirrors just above eye-height serve to reflect the sunlight coming in through the windows. The room features small and large tables, perfect for an intimate dinner or a group outing.
A new menu is available this week. No items were removed, but steaks, Philly steak sandwiches, and pizzas have been added to the list of yummy options. The 10” pizzas are inexpensive, delicious, and, in Maher’s words, “Too much for one, not enough for two.”
“This menu,” says Maher, “is the best of what sold at the other Petra. I kept my notes and I still have the other menu, but this is what sold best. Steaks sold. We used to sell three a week when we first opened; a year later, we were doing about 55 a week. People would come in, not familiar with the food, and they would take that as a safe bet, until they got familiar.”
You’ll probably see Maher in person when you arrive; he’s almost always at the restaurant. His son Abe and his daughters Donya and Yasmeen help him on the weekends. “They make their extra spending money,” he says. “It keeps their minds straight also, and it keeps them out of trouble, because you know…empty hands are in the hand of the devil.”
Maher’s wife, Angela, does most of the cooking. He says she’s been cooking all her life. “She’s fascinated by it,” he says.
“Our type of food requires an enormous amount of preparation because everything is made from scratch. Most people think of it as simple. We’re not doing any canned foods. If you come to my kitchen you will see no cans, zero cans. Everything is fresh. Hummus, we make a fresh batch every morning. Falafel, we make it here. Kibbeh, we make it here. Nothing is frozen.”
When asked how long it takes Angela to make hummus, Maher says, “She soaks the beans overnight, and then you have to cook it. It takes about six hours. Falafel, it takes six, seven hours. Overnight, also. Kibbeh takes two days, literally; one day you prepare the meat, and the other day you prepare the cracked wheat, then you make it into a ball shape, and so forth. It just requires a lot of energy.”
Though Petra Café doesn’t have a bar, they do have a “Brown Bag” license; Maher says most people bring wine. That would be the most traditional alcoholic beverage to consume with Mediterranean food, anyway. He may consider adding a bar in the future, but for now he wants to focus on the food.
In addition to being open for lunch and dinner (and all afternoon), Petra Café began doing late-night food last semester. Gyro wraps and fried rice are sold for $5 in front of the restaurant after 10 pm until bars close. “The fried rice is Japanese,” says Maher. “It just came out of nowhere. I never thought they would like it; I did it, and people loved it. It’s awesome. We make it a little hotter now; I want to wake them up, coming out of those bars (laughs).”
I’ve always been happy with my meal, the atmosphere, and the service when I dine at Petra. Of the service and quality of dining experience, Maher says, “If you want to do something, you may as well do it right. We’re one of the few restaurants in town that’s been around this long and maintains 96-97% food quality and customer satisfaction on Urban Spoon,” (though there will always be critics); this is the average score from 160 votes. Petra’s kibbeh is sincerely one of the most delicious dishes I’ve ever tasted; go ahead and add one more positive review from me!
This article was originally printed in The Local Voice #198 (published February 20, 2014). To download a PDF of this issue, click HERE.