Six weeks into its life, the Sahara Café still feels a little impermanent. Plates are often of the foam variety, and the tables and booths are thin and wobbly (replacements are planned for the future). The small, single-room dining space is sparse, if friendly, with coffee-ice-cream-colored paint above the wood paneling, more wood underfoot, and occasional Arabic background music above.
Manager Osama Ayaad is in transition himself. The owner-but-for-a-few-legalities, who goes by "Sam," left the neighboring Heart of Jerusalem Café under contentious circumstances and opened Sahara in the old Nile Café. In doing so, he shifted culinary influences east, to reflect the food of his native country of Jordan, as well as Syria, Lebanon and Palestine.
You can start with the back-of-the-room dessert case, which flashes Ayaad's three kinds of ma'amoul ($1.79, more on them below). Or with his counter full of hot drink supplies, which turn out a wonderful, sweet, cleansing sage tea ($1.99), and an appropriately strong and gritty Turkish coffee ($2.59) served with a cool copper ladle.
I started, however, with the new-to-me fattoush ($4.99), a classic use-up-the-scraps dish that every culture needs. The Chinese have fried rice, Mexicans have salsa and chilaquiles, Americans (and everybody else) have soup, among other things, and on and on. The fattoush typically includes stale pita chips, that, in this case, come off more like small croutons, and are lovely over the salad-like mix of green onions, cucumbers, mint, parsley, house-made lemon olive oil and a variety of spices, including sumac.
Our first sample of hummus brought the entrée plate ($7.45), with generous servings of a good grilled pita bread. The hummus itself is smooth and balanced, though I like bigger spikes of tahini and garlic. It also comes on the meze plate ($7.95), with a lightly smoky baba ghanoush and more pita bread. Though both plates seem a few dollars high — coming, as they do, with just the sides and bread — the beef kabab plate ($9.99), which also includes hummus and two large, tasty logs of minty ground beef, feels about right.
Gyro-like shawarma ($6.95) are can't-miss, with tahini, tzatziki, lettuce, tomato, banana peppers and noticeably strong pickled turnips combined with the option of chunky lamb, beef, chicken and "shawarful": deliciously soft and steamy falafel and beef. A list of cold sandwiches yields a brightly flavored, likewise-garnished smoked turkey sandwich ($5.95) on panini-grilled pita bread.
A chicken dajaj salad ($6.95) and fava bean plate ($7.45) are two more pleasant personal revelations. The salad features moist, dynamically spiced chicken skewers over a parsley-laden salad, while the dip's combination of mashed fava beans, tomatoes, parsley, lemon and olive oil — almost a bean salsa — is the perfect spread for pita.
Lastly, while the baklava ($1.79) is dry and unremarkable, the ma'amoul highlights a fun fact: Even among the deliciousness at standouts like Heart of Jerusalem, or Arabica Café, or Mediterranean Café, there've been locally un-mined flavors in them thar Levantine hills. Many of Ayaad's recipes are family-derived, and it shows in the original flavors that stand out among the well-executed traditional offerings. The homemade, shortbread-like dessert is one excellent example: pistachio, date and almond fillings are baked around a soft biscuit.
That'd be good enough. But to find rosewater lacing the almond filling? That's the kind of exotic experience I always hope to find when leaving the land of the hamburger stand.