Grape leaves are marvelous things.
These thin-skinned, kelly green torpedoes of seasoned rice have more structural integrity than a taco, hold their payload better than a potato chip and deliver a powerful pop of flavor.
The Captain has read that, in the wild, grape leaves don’t come so well equipped. (He wouldn’t know personally, because the Captain never ventures beyond the range of the furthest waiter.)
For 13 years, Sahara Mideastern Restaurant has anchored the strip on Mill Avenue just south of University Drive. In an era when prolonged success too often means growing corporate and losing sincerity, this sturdy Iraqi eatery understands the value of keeping it small and personal. O wner Ali Aziz usually greets diners at the door. He seems genuinely glad to see each one, saying things like "Hello" and "Welcome" instead of more traditional restaurant greetings like "Smoking or non?"
Sahara does marvelous things with the aforementioned grape leaves, which, at $2.50 a pair, understand the delicate balance between moist and soaking. The Vegetarian Combination ($9.95) combines two of these characters with tabbouleh, hummus and babaghannouj — this last dish being a tasty eggplant paste whose name can destroy almost any computer spellchecker. Entrees come with a decent supply of pita bread, which proves vital because the final traces of tabbouleh and chickpeas mock the tines of a fork. Sahara’s chalkboard specials are worth a look, as well.
The Captain had a friendly encounter with Chicken Biryami ($9.95), a flavorful concoction of boneless chicken, peas, carrots and tiny peppercorns in a curried khaki sauce atop a dome of seasoned rice. The Captain only hopes a clown was not painted at the bottom of his bowl. If so, the clown met a grisly, pita-related fate.
Lunch runs about $6 to $8, with dinner entrees and specials costing between $8 and $12. Sahara also offers righteously good baklava — which oozes honey onto the fork — and Arabic coffee with such a kick it makes a good substitute for ambition. All this is provided in a pleasant atmosphere of salmon-colored table tops, beaded walkways and Middle Eastern music. Arizona State
University alums will tell you: "The Sahara! I haven’t been there in a while." Go back, and you’ll find it hasn’t lost a step. Your table comes equipped with salt and pepper shakers, but they sit alone and untouched, like nerds at the freshman dance.
Sahara is one of two Middle Eastern enclaves bracketing ASU. North and west by the globe, but directly east of the campus, Cafe Istanbul brings a compelling blend of Turkish and Middle Eastern fare from its unassuming home off Rural Road.
Like Sahara, Cafe Istanbul offers a pleasant respite from the high-octane collegiality of the surrounding area. No Sparky memorabilia or rahrah accoutrements here. Just a pleasant, shaded redoubt where diners can break the day’s pace with a pleasant conversation and a $7.99 lunch buffet that lets them sample different motifs — or eat for sheer, unabashed quantity.
Cafe Istanbul has an eclectic buffet that blends ethnic favorites (lentil soup) with more mainstream fare (pasta salad and barbecued chicken.) Istanbul’s shawarma dishes feature chunks of beef or lamb in a delicious, hearty sauce, and their vegetable musaka brings potatoes, carrots and squash together in a flavorful combo. A good-looking rice pudding quivers in the display case for those craving dessert, but the Captain — weary from "taking the smorgasbord deep" — chose instead to conclude his meal by staggering out to the car and falling asleep immediately. Next week: The Far Eats!
Restaurant Hours: 11 a.m. to 2:45 p.m., 5 to 8:45 p.m. Monday to Friday; noon to 8:45 p.m. Saturday Where: 808 S. Mill Ave., Tempe Information: (480) 966-1971
Cafe Istanbul Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday; noon to 9 p.m. Sunday Where: 903 S. Rural Road, Tempe Information: (480) 731-9499