Some foods are just as fun to say. Take baba ghanouj; when I say it I start in a low voice for "baba" and swing up high for "ghanouj." I always say shawarma with a “Sopranos” New Jersey accent, while falafel becomes “full-awful” because I heard it that way in some movie. And I love putting a northern-Illinois/Wisconsin twist on shish kebab, coming out something like “sheesh-ki-BAB.”
Hailing from Jordan, Hyatham Khalil pronounces all these dishes perfectly. Khalil is the owner of Times Square Deli across from UNM, and he recently opened Sahara, also on Central. Sahara serves various Middle Eastern dishes in a brightly painted restaurant accented by camels. A vast desert traversed by passenger-laden dromedaries wraps around the walls. One wall bears a large logo with, you guessed it, another camel.
The menu is straightforward, listing expected meats and purées and several vegetarian-approved dishes. Meats come either in a sandwich or combo platter. Combo platters are loaded with enough sides to appease the most voracious appetites. Packed onto a disposable plate, expect to find rice, falafel, hummus, pickle mix, salad, a dolma and grilled pita.
The falafel totally rocked the Casbah. A delicate, crisp outside concealed a moist ground legume center bursting with spice. Each order, balls or patties, was consistent in taste and texture, never dry or tough. Sahara’s rice was also nice and moist, though it lacked any prominent flavor.
Dolmas, or stuffed grape leaves, were firm and tightly wrapped, filled with packed rice. Unfortunately, each bite was so sharp with lemon juice that any other spices were indiscernible against the loud citrus backdrop. Perhaps if they had been served with a little yogurt, the tartness would have been more palatable.
I fell hard for Khalil’s hummus. A nearly indescribable mouthfeel made me pause and focus all my attention on those pulverized chickpeas. Somehow light and full all at once, it felt like liquid velvet. Combined with a finespun flavor, it was an absolute delight. In contrast, the pita was on the dry side and so thoroughly grilled it was often close to brittle.
Skewered tikka-style, its flavor was enormous with slightly blackened, tender and juicy meat.
Greek salad was beautifully composed. All the typical ingredients were present: lettuce, tomato, olives, onions, pepperoncinis, cucumbers, feta and dressing. Though predictable in construction, I was impressed. An initial glance suggested the salad would be heavy and greasy. First impressions can be wrong. In this case, they certainly were. Though amply dressed, the greens were in no way weighed down or masked by the oil.
Sahara’s meat dishes, overall, showed well. Chicken, beef and lamb were all prepared with skill and attention. In particular, the specialty spiced chicken stood out. Skewered tikka-style, its flavor was enormous with slightly blackened, tender and juicy meat. I could find no fault with that chicken. I was put off, however, by the garlic sauce topping it. I tried the sauce twice. My first serving's texture was so gritty, I wondered if sand from the desert mural had been sprinkled in it. The second go was thicker and smoother, more enjoyable than distracting. It’s certainly an interesting sauce (it uses potato as a base), but I was dismayed by the inconsistency. Lamb was also a good meat choice, with no gaminess to speak of and a deep flavor.
Most food served at Sahara earns a pass. There are a couple blemishes, but nothing that calls for harsh judgment. Khalil is proud to tell any who ask that everything is made in house. “We are the only place that makes all our food from scratch, no cans, just like overseas in my country.”
Turkish coffee is a worthwhile finale. Brewed in an ibrik, a special stovetop pot, it’s thick, strong and complex.
The University area is filled to overflowing with restaurants that serve food fast for diners on the go, and Sahara is making a good attempt to coax as many as possible into its small dining room. On your next lunch break or between-class breather, forego the burger and let Khalil cook something healthy and flavorful for you.
The Alibi Recommends:
• Greek salad
• Specialty spiced chicken, sandwich or combo
Sahara Middle Eastern Eatery, 2622 Central SE, Suite A, 255-5400. Hours: Mon-Sat 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m., Sun noon-7 p.m. Ambience: Fast food meets exotic deli. Price range: $3.99 (falafel sandwich) to $8.99 (combo platters). Credit cards accepted, carry out, catering.