"There's something wrong with this meatball. It's green inside!" I recently heard a diner squeal after she bit into one of the Sahara's trademark falafels. As her young charge ripped his shirt off and raced around the restaurant doing ninja thrusts and jabs, I thought that the proprietor of this restaurant, a Palestinian from Israel, must have infinite patience and fortitude to put up with a clientele that is not entirely likely to appreciate his food.
And I'm glad he does. The Sahara features authentic Middle-Eastern food, reasonably priced, in a no-nonsense location with exceptional entertainment on the first Saturday of each month. The service the night I was there was abysmal, but it was worth it for the cultural experience . . . and the dolmades.The Sahara's dolmades, or stuffed grape leaves filled with rice, parsley, onions, tomatoes, olive oil and lemon juice, with just a hint of cinnamon and allspice, if I'm not mistaken, are some of the tastiest I've experienced on this continent. You can order them for 99 cents or have one included on the highly recommended Vegetarian Combo Plate for $7.29.
The Vegetarian Plate gives you a healthy taste of most people's Middle-Eastern favorites: the aforementioned dolmades; hummus, which is a creamy puree of chick peas, tahini or sesame paste, lemon juice and garlic drizzled with olive oil and paprika to be eaten on a piece of pita; baba ganuje, another dip of roasted, pureed eggplant mixed with tahini, lemon juice, cumin and parsley; and falafel, which, to many people's surprise is not a pita sandwich but rather the deep-fried ball of ground chick peas, fava beans, onions, garlic, cilantro (hence the green color), cumin and pepper found inside the sandwiches they're familiar with. Sahara's are even better than what you'd find on the streets of Israel.
If it's meat you're in the mood for, I suggest sticking with the lamb, which is exceptional. The beef dishes contain very lightly seasoned ground beef reminiscent of bland meatloaf, and the chicken dishes I found dry and oversalted. The lamb, however . . . ahhhh, the lamb. It was perfectly tender and succulent, whether served as shawarma, sliced thin and nestled in a pita with tomatoes, onions and tahini sauce, for $3.99; or as a shish-kabob, for $7.49. Kabob plates, chicken, beef, lamb or a combination, are served with lemon rice, hummus, the Sahara green salad, and pita bread.
Another offering you won't want to miss is Sahara's special lentil soup, which is light for a legume dish, and includes chopped fresh spinach, onions, garlic, lemon juice and a variety of spices including fresh mint, which makes it very refreshing. A bowl is $2.29.
For all that, the most memorable aspect of our evening at the Sahara was the entertainment, for which we paid $3 extra per person. Tarek Omar and Rajab Juma provided live music; traditional sounds of the Middle East and North Africa, with a modern twist. Since entertainment is only provided once a month, you'll want to make a reservation. Walk-ins earn the marked disdain of the proprietor.
We were sporadically served by three different people who all took our orders and forgot half of what we requested or brought twice the amount we asked for. We were overcharged for our meals, then when our bill was correctly retabulated, it sat, with my credit card, on our table for half an hour while the servers either ignored us or sneered at us. Finally, a girl was sent from the kitchen to sheepishly inform us that they don't accept credit cards. I saw no indication of that anywhere in the restaurant.
My favorite faux pas, however, was committed by the server who continually referred to the Kenafah we ordered for dessert as "Kafka.' Sahara's version of Kenafah is a custard-like mixture of baked cheeses, topped with a sweet syrup and toasted shredded wheat.
As we left the restaurant, we decided that the richness of the food and entertainment erased the bad taste left in our mouths by spotty service.
Rating: * * *
Sahara, 368 S. State, Salt Lake City, 595-6900. Open Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. through 3 p.m., then 5-9 p.m. Fridays they're open 11 a.m. through 3 p.m., then 5-10 p.m. and Saturdays noon through 10 p.m. Reservations are accepted and recommended, and checks are accepted as well, but whatever you do, don't try to use a credit card!