The hookas are stacked in a corner, a cook leans — arms folded — against a counter in the open kitchen and a server stacks silverware behind the bar. It's 6 p.m., a lazy time at SoHo Oasis Café, the staff counting down the hours until this stretch of Howard Avenue shakes off the dust of daily jobs and wakes the hell up.
Sit outside on the patio enclosed by wrought iron and rich, earthy curtains, and you'll see it happen soon enough. Joggers and dog-walkers will fade with the sun, and MacDintons, clearly visible (and audible) across the street, will gradually gorge on South Tampa regulars downing drink specials. Even in the middle of the week, SoHo doesn't start hopping until it gets dark.
That's when Oasis will fill up with locals looking for a pre- or post-bar nosh, or more far-flung Tampans seeking out dependable Middle Eastern fare with a Lebanese outlook.
The Middle East may not have invented the word "tapas," but cuisines from countries like Lebanon have been serving their own variety of the small plates menu long enough that they're free from the stigma of that over-used trend. Here it's called mezze and features over a dozen offerings, many of them dishes that most people are familiar with.
Order the vegetarian platter ($11.95) off the entrée menu, and you'll get hearty portions of Oasis' best mezze at a much more reasonable price. The falafel is gorgeous, hefty chickpea fritters fried a deep golden brown but moist enough in the middle to make the accompanying yogurt sauce merely optional. All the dips here are iconic examples of how to do Middle Eastern standards right, from rich hummus with the right balance of tahini and garlic, to baba ganoush that tastes more of eggplant and smoke than garlic and spice. Even better is the thickened yogurt blended with subtle notes of garlic and mint, called labneh.
There are also spicy Armenian sausages ($7) soaked in vinegar, giant kibbeh ($7) stuffed with bland beef and platters of olives and pickles ($2.99).
If you're continuing past the mezze stage of the menu, you'll want to keep that veggie platter handy. Many of the later dishes need the help an additional schmear of labneh can provide.
Or, in the case of the lamb shawerma ($11.95), a vat of the stuff. Instead of slices of glistening, spit-roasted meat, we get hunks of dessicated flesh. Smells great, with the tang of sumac and rich, sweet spices, but it feels like chewing on well-seasoned pasteboard. A shame, really, since other roasted meats are treated to much better technique, like two tiny, butterflied quail ($15.95) painted black and brown by fire. The game bird has enough fat that there's great contrast between the juicy meat and crisp, salty skin.
Beef filet kebabs ($8) are equally tasty, especially when stuffed into pita with charred onions and roasted red peppers. And lamb does finally find its due in a kebab wrap ($7), the chunks of meat rosy in the middle and paired with a bounty of pickles, tomatoes and lettuce. Oasis' pita is super-thin and elastic when fresh, and a turn on the sandwich press adds a layer of crunch to the wraps. Great texture, but it dries out the bread and begs for more wet yogurt sauce.
Although Oasis' kafta ($12.95) could use a more distinct, fiery crust, it's a safe pick. The tubes of ground chicken or beef are kept moist with the addition of parsley and onion, the spongy meat a perfect match with the gooey, nutty rice that comes with each entree. You also get a choice of two other sides: the excellent hummus, a tasty chopped vegetable salad doused in bright vinaigrette, or french fries.
French fries? Sure. You can even have them covered in melted cheese ($4.99). C'mon, everybody likes fries.
Although the wine list is short and features a few standard worldwide brands, there're also more than a half-dozen Lebanese varieties, including the only wines by the glass. Both are blends, the red a flabby but pleasant mixture of Rhone varietals and cabernet, the white a mash-up of anonymous southern French grapes fortified by chardonnay. Each is tasty enough, and both work well with the food, but you can also indulge in Almaza, the Budweiser of Lebanon.
During the long holy month of Ramadan, Oasis was deadly quiet. At least until sundown, when the place would blow up like a balloon. Then the houkas came out to the patio, popular with both traditionalists and young wannabes. The restaurant has 30 flavors of shisha, $12 for the first bowl and $7 for each additional.
These days it's more gradual. People trickle in as I nurse my Almaza, gradually filling the patio with curling smoke, grilled meats and the scent of coffee and red wine. I take in the scene outside this little Oasis, a view of augmented blonds and Euro-trash wannabes striding by, masses of kids thronging MacDinton's wooden deck and a parade of high-end automobiles thumbing noses at the economy. SoHo is beautiful.