Photo by Jeanne Rice "Beware the eating establishment that doles out plastic forks," I tell my loved ones whether they want to hear it or not. "Such doling usually indicates a place wherein the quality of food is as luxurious as the eating utensils."
And then I discovered Sahara Falafel. Not only does the food bazaar give you a synthetic non-spoon, it also withholds the customary glass of water that is the lifeblood of thrifty restaurant-goers like me. The nerve!
But do forgive the fine folks of this compact takeout. Their prodigious talent for scrimping is overshadowed only by their skill in preparing some of the richest Middle Eastern cuisine in Anaheim's very rich Little Gaza.
You can see where Sahara Falafel's investment goes upon entering the restaurant—actually, you can smell it before opening the doors. Beckoning you to the restaurant is the fragrance of cooked beef and chicken. Inside, you will discover its origin: two constantly rotating monster spits, essential to the pursuit of shawerma, the fabulous Middle Eastern technique of meat preparation. Cooked this way, beef and chicken ooze their natural juices without attaining char. Each bite of Sahara's shawerma greets your mouth with the simple joy of good. You can get your choice of shawerma served on a plate with a basic salad or stuffed into a toasted pita along with crisp chunks of tomatoes, onions and lettuce. It doesn't matter; in the end, each is succulent.
There are also fine offerings of kofta (minced beef orbs) and shish tawouk (charbroiled chicken) if you can't get enough of devouring animals. Whichever option you choose, slather the beef with Sahara's slightly nutty tahini sauce or the chicken with a marvelous garlic sauce. And don't forget to bite into the puny chiles whose size betrays their ferocity.
Vegetarians shouldn't shun Sahara, however. Its superb non-meat options show why Middle Eastern cuisine is such an herbivorous obsession. The tabbouleh (a finely chopped parsley, tomato and wheat salad) tastes very leafy and is so light on the stomach you can eat it for days and not notice. The restaurant's namesake falafels are exemplary balls of battered chickpeas, with an oatmeal-cookie-brown exterior and an emerald-green interior—like a fried kiwi in appearance.
The stuffed grape leaves are the most interesting entrée, so make sure to clean your palette (ask for water; they'll give it to you) before tasting this Twinkie-sized delicacy. The flavor takes time to determine, and frankly, I'm still determining. Maybe it has dry yam with a touch of cinnamon, or perhaps some roasted apples; I'm still not sure what role the rice plays in all this. Stuffed grape leaves are so good I keep ordering them.
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Regardless of food lifestyle, no Sahara Falafel meal is complete without a dip. You can try the hummus, which has the right viscosity and a modest helping of olive oil and chile powder. Baba ghanouj—eggplant puree—is much sharper than the blandly delicious hummus, and with little bits of eggplant and pine nuts strewn amongst the muck, the pale spread's nuances are sure to impress.
All of these dishes are straightforward, so it's not surprising that what passes for wine here is the no-frills Juhayna-brand nectars (either mango or pear). The fruit extracts perfectly complement Sahara's excellent entrées. They're as fruity, sweet and syrupy as nectar, and it's as if Jesus is the wine steward: one bottle will somehow last an entire massive meal despite its tiny container.
The only opulence besides Sahara Falafel's no-frills yet elegant food is the décor. Beautiful murals of the Sahara and giant pictures of worshipers circling the Ka'aba (Islam's holiest shrine) adorn the walls. Add to this environment the beautiful cadences of Arabic broadcasting from the always-on television, and you can almost imagine an idyllic Arabia free of oil barons or immoral occupiers. If only life in the Middle East truly were as trouble-free and beautiful as in Sahara Falafel.
Sahara Falafel, located at 590 S. Brookhurst St., Anaheim, is open Mon.-Fri., 10 a.m.-10 p.m.; sat.-Sun., 10 a.m.-11 p.m. (714) 491-0400. No alcohol. Dinner for two, $7-$18 food only. Cash only.