Sahara: so hot right now

Before this week, I had visited Sahara – wedged between Chapel and Crown on Temple – only once. I was tragically hung over and foolishly ordered chicken fingers, a mistake akin to ordering a cheeseburger at Pepe’s. I had come within a hair’s breadth of some truly fantastic food and in my condition, passed it by. That’s a cardinal sin in my book, but I have atoned: On my recent, clear-headed visits I ordered and enjoyed the best middle-eastern food I have eaten in New Haven and found Sahara to be a charming, reasonably-priced Mediterranean restaurant well-worth a visit – or ten.

Sahara is a small place that feels more like a deli than anything else. The kitchen is open and surrounded by a glass case displaying an array of pre-cooked delights ready for a lunch on the go. There are tables to seat roughly 30, but I never saw more than half of them full, though I didn’t see that many of them empty either. The service is slow but friendly, and you’ll have no trouble leaving full for under $10.

If you’re really strapped for cash, Sahara’s portions are so hearty that you can make a full meal out of an appetizer. Moujadarah ($4.25) is a salad of lentils and cracked wheat in an oily dressing covered with crispy fried onions. It’s hearty peasant fare, and so much comes in one order that you could make a number of hearty peasants very happy. Lanhambil ajeen ($2.95) is a piece of round flat bread topped with seasoned meat. It’s crispy and soft, spicy and sweet with distinct hints of pepper and cinnamon — a good bet for those who feel they’ve eaten enough hummus in their life. The stuffed grape leaves ($4.25) are good, but not overwhelmingly memorable.

A middle-eastern restaurant is only as good as its falafel, and it’s telling that Sahara has the best falafel in town. Sahara’s falafel ($3.25 sandwich; $6.00 platter) is dark and crunchy on the outside, but pillowy soft on the inside. Sahara consistently goes right where other places go wrong: their hummus ($3.25; $6.00) is rich but not oily like it so often can be. Babaganoush ($3.25; $6.00) is thicker than I’ve had before but also lighter and less greasy.

On the meatier side, shish kebab ($4.95; $8.25) is grilled hunks of lamb heavily seasoned and served with the restaurant’s version of tzatziki – a cucumber yogurt sauce – that they derivatively call yogurt sauce. With as much seasoning as goes into shish kebab, the stuff usually tastes good, but it can be tough and chewy. Sahara’s kebab avoids such pitfalls and is, rather, tender and juicy.

The best way of trying all these items is on one of Sahara’s innumerable platters. You can get pretty much any combination of items thrown together for less money than you would expect. They also offer platters for two, which would make for a cozy, if messy, date.

Time and time again, Sahara impresses me with its simple, well-prepared food – exactly what anyone would want from a restaurant. Was there anything else they could surprise me with? Anything else I could put to the test? Belt bursting, crying with satisfaction, I ordered some baklava ($1.50). It was spectacular.

Usually when I’ve reviewed a restaurant, I leave feeling I’ve tried everything on the menu that I wanted to. This is not true of Sahara’s five-page epic of a bill of fare. While I don’t think I’ll be trying their chicken Florentine anytime soon, I can’t wait to go back and sample their renditions of classics like Tabbouleh and Kebeh and experiment with some of the dishes they offer that I’ve never heard of, like Ful Mudammaz (fava bean salad) and Zater (your guess is as good as mine) — Sahara will have you coming back for more.

If low prices and great food aren’t enough for you, Sahara is also open late: 11:45 during the week and 12:45 Thursday, Friday and Saturday. And they deliver. And they’re on campusfoods.com. I don’t know how this place has hidden under the radar for so long, but it’s now my mission to change that. Sorry Mamoun, I’m seeing other people.

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