A new restaurant opened near my home about a year ago. Locally owned and operated rather than yet another franchise outlet, I figured it would go away soon enough. Folks in my small South Carolina town aren’t exactly the adventurous type when it comes to dining out and, since this place had neither drive-through nor dollar menu, it seemed doomed.
Add to that the fact that the Sahara Restaurant offers “Mediterranean fare” such as falafel, baba ganoush and kabobs both shish and adana, and I’m thinking their fate is sealed. Only if the hookah bar draws nearby college students looking for a high, or rednecks looking for prostitutes, is there a chance it’ll succeed long term.
Surprisingly enough, though, it remains in business, so my family and I decided to give it a try Saturday night.
The owner is wise to present his eatery as Mediterranean. South Carolinians aren’t known for their geography skills — remember that our former governor confused Argentina with the Appalachian Trail — but they know enough about that part of the world to think of Greeks, Italians and Spaniards when they hear that particular inland sea mentioned. Were they to know the truth, that Middle Eastern dishes with a distinct Egyptian theme are on the menu at the Sahara, they’d immediately be thinking of Ay-rabs, and how they weren’t about to try any foods that might be favored by al-Qaida.
“The only thing they know how to barbecue is themselves, in a suicide vest,” many of my neighbors might say. “I ain’t eatin’ that.”
That Egypt has been an ally of America for over 30 years is lost on many in this part of the country. One look at a swarthy wait staff that doesn’t include a single Mexican, and most patrons would be executing a U-turn back to the parking lot, then using the remote start feature on their SUV to make sure it hasn’t been fitted with a car bomb.
When we arrived for dinner around 6 p.m., there were only a few other parties already seated. The atmosphere of the small establishment doesn’t offer much to transport you away to the Levant. It was brightly lit and featured standard-issue tables and booths. There were a couple of hookah pipes to the right of the entrance, and artwork featuring the pyramids, the Sphinx and scenes from the world’s largest desert on all the walls.
Unfortunately, the most overt representation of Egypt came from the wide-screen television hung directly adjacent to the table where we were seated. From there came CNN’s coverage of the developing story about rioting in the streets of Cairo, clashes among protesters, police and army units, and calls for the ouster of the Egyptian president. It didn’t help make for a pleasant dining climate to have the angry face on the TV screen crying “Death to Mubarek!” bear a striking resemblance to the waiter asking if we’d care to try an appetizer.
Still, I’m an open-minded man with some worldwide traveling experience, and tend to have an adventurous streak when it comes to trying the foods of other cultures. I look at the list on the menu and considered the starters. Among the offerings were “foul maddams,” “meggadara,” “fried kibba” and “french fries.” The first of these made me think again of hookers, the second of a heavy-metal rock band, the third of dog food, and the fourth of McDonald’s. None had the appeal I was looking for, so we decided to wait instead to order an entree.
While we considered the other dishes, I got the distinct impression I was being watched by every worker in the restaurant. Or rather, they seemed intrigued by my hair, as none of them met my eyes but instead looked several inches above them. When I saw my wife and son, sitting across from me, doing the same thing, I realized that everyone was being transfixed by the violent images on the screen behind where I sat. The cook, the cashier, the greeter, the dishwashers, all peered out to watch the news playing out halfway around the world. I wondered if an ancient peoples’ desire to throw off the yoke of an authoritarian leader and breathe the sweet air of democratic reforms was going to affect my dinner preparation. I don’t like my lamb overcooked while the chef worries about his imprisoned countrymen and I don’t like tear gas as a spice.
When the waiter returned, we had settled on our orders. My son had the chicken kabob with fries, my wife had the adana kabob (parenthetically labeled as “kofta” on the menu, as if that would help) and I had the mixed grill. We were also brought a complementary plate of hummus, some pita bread and a too-salty salad with cucumbers, a vegetable I hate only slightly less than death itself.
The main courses arrived promptly and were actually quite tasty. My college-age son struggled a bit with the whole kabob concept, uncertain whether to remove the meat from the skewer by sticking it deep into his mouth and impaling his larynx, or simply gnawing at it from the side until it came loose and fell in his lap. My wife’s dish turned out to be a browned, formed cylinder of ground beef, quite tasty if you could get past what it looked like. My mixed grill included chicken, lamb and a third meat I hoped wasn’t camel. It was all a tad dry but became more moist and flavorful when combined with the basmati rice and a white sauce I imagined had yogurt in it.
When we finished our meal, the waiter returned with a shrink-wrapped broadsheet that showed pictures of the desserts available. Baklava, I was familiar with, though I can’t say the same for “harrisa” and “konafa”. The fourth option was New York cheesecake, probably a tribute to all the Middle Eastern cabdrivers in Manhattan. We politely declined the desserts, as news came across the TV behind me that looters had attacked the Egyptian Museum and were carrying off bits of mummy, a distinctly unappetizing development.
All in all, we had a pleasant dining experience I can recommend to anyone in Rock Hill who doesn’t mind having their weekend outing complemented by an armed insurrection that could unbalance the fragile peace of the world’s most volatile region. My only complaint, other than the fact that the staff seemed more concerned with distant family than they did with refilling my water glass, was that the Sahara did not serve alcoholic beverages. I chalked this up to Islam’s intolerance for drunkenness but found out later that it was due to a city ordinance that prevents liquor licenses being issued to businesses located within 500 feet of a church. So it was the righteous Baptists across the street who deserved the blame, not similarly busybody fundamentalists from another of the world’s great religions.
If, God forbid, you ever find yourself in Rock Hill and longing for a good “fattush” (a salad tossed with toasted pita chips, lemon and sumac, not the mashup of a ZZ Top/Sir Mix-a-lot song), please give the Sahara a try.