Sahara Mediterranean Cuisine's lunches are no mirage: tasty and inexpensive

 Mediterranean eatery outside of New Circle has a bounty of tasty, inexpensive meals

 By Wendy Miller Contributing Restaurant Critic

     Because most city driving seems to me a necessary evil to get between points A and B, I can think of only two incentives to brave the ultimately more efficient but temporarily nightmarish intersection of Harrodsburg and New Circle Roads. One motivator is the public library, and the other is lunch at Sahara Mediterranean Cuisine, a cozy little spot near Beaumont Centre that single-handedly gives Lexington's south side its ethnic culinary credibility.

     Although small and modest, Sahara seems roomier than it is, with great lighting from big picture windows and mementos — rugs, flags and posters — trailing up the walls, making them appear taller. The best view, however, is the colorful one of cold salads and appetizers, spit- roasting meats and the hot buffet that greets you as you enter.

     Nutritious and delicious lunch specials are just $6.46. They include a meat or vegetarian main course, plus yellow rice with peas and diced carrots, rice pilaf sprinkled with toasted almonds, pita bread, silky hummus that is the perfect balance of rich and nutty tahini (sesame seed paste) and garbanzos, garlic sauce, olives, pepperoncini, a pickle and salad.

     The challenge is choosing which entree to order.

     For example, ground lamb, gently patted along a skewer so as not to lose one iota of tenderness upon grilling, makes a great midday meal. But so does Sahara's chicken shawarma: Each bite shaved off its vertical spit melts in your mouth. And the finest steakhouses in town do not do a better job with meat than Sahara. One kebab of flawlessly grilled beef tenderloin, rich but not fatty, smoky but not charred — you can almost taste the fire — perfect pink inside and the texture of room-temperature butter, will satisfy the most demanding carnivorous craving.

     But let's explore the vegetable spectrum a bit more.

     I defy anyone to top the huge falafel wrap. It's heaven in pita bread for $4.29. The falafel are piping hot with classic textural contrast — creamy inside with a crunchy crust — the tahini and garlic sauce soften the pita bread, and chopped vegetables contribute garden freshness. Nibbled delicately in the car — not while driving, of course — this mega "sandwich" could conceivably last from New Circle Road to Interstate 75.

     Salads are all outstanding. The Greek salad is a riot of color: crimson and sunny-yellow peppers, and chunks of bright green cucumber topped with snow-white feta and black kalamata olives. The simpler "house salad" is a bowl of leafy lettuce, tomatoes, onions and cucumbers, tossed in a light vinaigrette and sprinkled with sumac. The tomato and diced cucumber in tahini — an unlikely yet successful combination of flavors — also is a keeper.

     Finally, order that terrific hummus, with a big ladle of savory stewed fava beans to ramp up its protein value and make it earthier and prettier.

     If there's no room for dessert, buy some baklava to go. It's not made in-house, but it's flaky and loaded with honey and pistachios.

     In fact, you can get just about anything to take home, either from the restaurant itself or from the new market next door that offers not only dry, refrigerated and canned goods, but an array of halal meats that have been butchered according to standards that ensure purity.

     The woes of traffic come and go, but Sahara has proven that quality Mediterranean cuisine endures outside New Circle (if only barely outside it). Go with friends so you can share the generous dishes or, if you're alone, simply check out a book from the public library next door and enjoy one of the best tables for one in town.

Herald-Leader    Sept. 16, 2011

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