When you live in Sarasota and someone asks if you’ve been to Sahara, they aren’t talking about a desert in Africa. What they’re asking is whether you’ve been the Sahara Cafe & Mediterranean Food, located in the Saba Plaza on Tamiami Trail, just north of Bahia Vista.
Trust me when I say this . . . Sahara Cafe has a lot of loyal fans.
Take our lunch visit yesterday. We stopped in and the dining room was hopping. The minute a table opened up, someone was there to grab it. There were three open tables when Mart and I arrived, and zero available within the next five minutes. A number of people were also picking up to-go orders and purchasing groceries, so yeah, Sahara is one hot place to visit.
Now that I think about it, Sahara Cafe is probably one of the original “fast casual” restaurants on Tamiami Trail. Guests order and pay at the counter, and then take a seat. Your beverages are brought out first, unless you’ve already picked one from the beverage cooler at the counter. A short time later, depending upon the rush, your meal is brought out to you.
But while you’re waiting, you’ll probably want to peruse the grocery shelves filled with Middle Eastern/Indian/Mediterranean ingredients for sale along the entry wall of the dining room. I was pleased to see a number of different curries available, as well as a variety of rices, lentils and legumes, candies and sauces. Being that I’m planning to make Indian Dahl for a book club meeting in two days, as soon as I’m done with this blog, I’m headed back over for some much needed ingredients!
Besides the grocery isle and the grab-a-table-quick dining room, one of the other first things you’ll notice when visiting Sahara Cafe is the aroma. There’s really no where else like it in Sarasota. The smell of exotic spices and grilled meats wafts through the air the minute you step inside. It put a smile on my face, which was followed up with an even bigger smile when I checked out the menu prices. You can easily enjoy a fresh cooked Mediterranean meal, be it a salad with specialty cheeses and stuffed grape leaves, a pita sandwich, a vegetarian specialty or a platter with your choice of two sides . . . and any thing you choose is priced under $10. No wonder Sahara is so busy!
Mart knew from the start that he wanted a light lunch, so he focused on the Sahara Special Salad, which is available without a protein for $7.99 or you can add grilled chicken or Gyro meat for $2.49 more. (This is pretty much the only way to spend $11 on a meal!) This salad had all the taste bud popping flavor Mart was hoping for. Mixed greens were topped with fresh tomato, onion, and sliced green peppers. Then the salad went “all Sahara” with Kalamata olives, stuffed grape leaves and small cups of hummus, Baba Ghanouj and tzatziki. A seasoned oil and vinegar salad dressing is included, along with a basket of soft, fluffy pita bread. As far as portion sizes go, this salad was large enough that Mart took almost half of it home. The dipping sauces tasted exactly as he’d hoped, and while the grape leaves weren’t “zippy” enough for him, I liked them and noticed they were the first ingredient polished off on his salad.
Me? I was torn between a traditional Greek Gyro wrap or one of Sahara’s platters which allowed me to pick 2 side dishes. Ultimately the opportunity to enjoy Basmati rice prepared the traditional Middle Eastern way won me over against the wraps. Happily, I was able to satisfy my craving for a gyro by ordering the Combination Platter, which offered the marinated lamb typically found in a gyro alongside Sahara’s marinated chicken. The choices for sides included hummus, Baba Ghanouj, tabbouleh, rice, Greek salad, potato salad or fries. So I ordered my fix of rice, along with some yummy Baba Ghanouj.
Looking at the photo, I should point out that the Baba Ghanouj, which is also spelled baba ganoush, is cooked eggplant mashed with tahini, olive oil and various seasonings. (It is the creamy side, shown just behind the rice.) I’ve had it numerous times over the years and discovered the Baba Ghanouj from one Middle Eastern country tastes slightly different from that served in another country, like Israel or Turkey. Sahara’s version was packed with flavor and offered a delightful “tang” that Mart was looking for in his grape leaves. I noticed he found taste-bud nirvana dipping his grape leaves in the Baba Ghanouj. As for the rice, it was exactly as I could hope for, and the side of tzatziki was the perfect dipping sauce for both the Gyro lamb meat and the grilled chicken. While Mart packed up a portion of his salad to munch on later, I could not leave Sahara Cafe without polishing off my entire meal.
What Sahara Cafe has managed to do over the 20 years they’ve been in business is to focus on the varied flavors found in the Mediterranean Diet, which appeals to Vegans, Vegetarians, Keto and Paleo focused guests. Their cuisine is fresh, natural food, made from scratch from the recipes of their ancestors, all while offering tasty meals at affordable prices. No wonder they’re so busy in the height of summer. Being true to yourself is the playbook for success, no matter what the culture! Enough said!
But. . . next visit, I’m trying their Falafel and the Tabouleh! Just saying!