Sahara Grill & Cafe

Sahara Grill & Cafe

5207 Madison Ave.
Sacramento, CA 95841

(916) 332-3294

There is nothing unfavorable or unwelcoming about Sahara Grill & Cafe except, perhaps, its odd choice of name. The restaurant, located near the intersection at Madison Avenue and Auburn Boulevard, shares nothing in common with the 3.6-million-square mile desolation that comprises most of North Africa—aside from the sandy hue of its walls.

Perhaps the intent is to highlight what an oasis this establishment actually is—except that it’s an oasis that seems far more Persian than Mediterranean.

Yes, there’s dolma, falafel and Greek salad, but the core of the menu seems far less occidental. There are oval platters crammed with foot-long kefta or chicken kabobs, all shoehorned against the base of a parsley-dusted ridge of two-tone basmati rice that’s torn directly from the Persian culinary playbook.

Then there’s the ubiquitous chatni, a cilantro, vinegar and garlic kissing cousin of Argentina’s chimichurri, which is equally as bracing on bread as it is on lamb, chicken or beef.

All the meat served here is halal. Actually, Ami, the gregarious and attentive lunchtime server, says it’s kosher, a form of food preparation that shares several of practices and prohibitions with halal methods, most obviously those concerning pork.

Regardless, it’s instantly obvious that a skilled chef is in the kitchen. Ami calls the cook a “she,” suggesting that Sahara’s matriarch is at the helm.

Too often, Persian or Mediterranean restaurants offer up char-kabobs—pieces of meat with exteriors that provide copious carbon protein but feature interiors as arid as the real Sahara. Not here. The turmeric-orange chicken cubes are touched at their corners with flecks of black—just enough to crisp the outside, but still leave a juicy inside that bears no hint of pink. Deft indeed.

Similarly, the aromatic, marinated lamb—three large, 1/2-inch-thick but bone-heavy chops—receives precise grilling. The result is meat that’s pink but nowhere near tartare.

“Server gets what’s left,” Ami says.

Unlike in the Sahara desert, no diner will ever be parched here thanks to the restaurant’s organic juice bar. Those looking for something stronger won’t find it. No liquor license. Among the fresh-squeezed options: apple, carrot, orange, pear and pomegranate. Ami’s favorites are apple-pear and pomegranate-carrot blends. Both are crisply refreshing. Ami ends up three for three, and her praise leads to an ordering of the lamb shoulder.

A common rap on Persian food is that its predictably pedestrian—salad, lentil soup, rice with meat, chicken, maybe some salmon or shrimp, set off with a grilled tomato and, in Sahara’s case, three strips of bell pepper spears. Ho-hum.

In response: First, there are numerous flavorful spices hard at work offstage. Second, chatni—although Ami and I would both enjoy its heat amplified—along with a garlic-rich yogurt sauce are both readily available to enhance any dish.

And, third, if the previous two reasons aren’t enough to refute any accusations of being boring, then certainly Sahara’s salad bar will, with its large, clear serving bowl brimming with crinkle-cut carrot coins. Another bowl is loaded with rectangular beet slices. Olives, though not Kalamata, occupy another. Radishes get their own as well. Even better, some lightly pickled red cabbage and then—Dish dares other restaurants to match this level of commitment—there’s also a bowl filled with jalapeño rounds and another stocked with slightly vinegary, well-herbed onion slivers. On another visit, there’s also a kick-ass—albeit tart—slaw. If Wonder bread builds bodies 12 ways, this is easily doubles that number.

The onions, cabbage and peppers all combine delightfully with each entree, creating a sum that’s greater than its parts and that only the most myopic would see as pedestrian.

Finally, topping things off with baklava and a scalding cup of Turkish tea poured from on-high makes for a deliriously decadent end to the meal.

With its sleek black chairs and tables, the interior here is upscale and scrupulously maintained. Sahara is an eatery that deserves notice—both for the food, but also for Ami’s effortless, killer service, which only enhances the experience.

Part of pleasure, of course, is the delight of hearing Ami say in farewell, “See you later, alligator,” and being able to respond:

“In very short while, crocodile.”