“Is this to go, or would you like to sit on the patio?”
At the height of summer in the high desert, the question is close to a no-brainer. Umbrellas and water misting systems help only so much when the mercury nears 100 degrees.
So you choose takeout. You get a night off from cooking and a chance to support restaurants during difficult times. And you may never be as appreciated by your family or roommates as when you return home with the food.
In these times, a place geared for takeout like Sahara Mediterranean Grill Express is particularly attractive. You can wheel right up to the door, pick up your order and be back on the road in a matter of minutes.
The Uptown satellite of Tom and Areeg Khalil’s much-loved Sahara Middle Eastern Eatery across from University of New Mexico opened in 2017. With the addition of the stylish kebab house Chello Grill and Alex and Neda Abweh’s excellent Need a Pita, the neighborhood has become a hub for the city’s Middle Eastern food scene.
Sahara Express faces a parking lot on the west side of ABQ Uptown, the outdoor mall on Louisiana. A few tables are lined up along the sidewalk outside, right in the crosshairs of the blazing summer sun.
Inside, a counter separates the narrow dining area from a small, well-equipped kitchen with a grill, a couple of fryers and a horizontal spit for cooking shawarma and gyros.
Sahara’s menu of Middle Eastern specialties is almost identical to the one at its UNM location. The usual suspects, including falafel and gyros, show up in sandwiches, entrée plates or family party platters. Unfortunately, daily specials available at the main location, such as malfoof, or stuffed cabbage leaves, are not offered at the express stop.
A takeout dinner on a weeknight, brisk and trouble-free, showed how Sahara shines at preparing appetizers and side dishes. A cup of baba ghanouj ($4.49) burst with garlic and lemon flavor. The eggplant is prepared by charbroiling, allowing a slight smokiness to show through the nutty, creamy tahini. I scooped it up greedily with pita bread, then revisited it later for a midnight snack with crackers.
Sahara’s exceptional version of dolmas, the ubiquitous stuffed grape leaf dish, is a long way from the oily blocks waiting to disappoint you on the shelves of supermarkets and delis. Here, the preparation lets the grape leaves, rice and mint shine.
The subtle touch was also evident in a dessert of baklava with pistachios ($2.49), a filo dough pastry that is so often served sodden with syrup. Sahara’s was superbly balanced, with a discreet sweetness.
Entree plates ($12.49) present a centerpiece like chicken shawarma or gyros over rice, a pile of garlicky, silky hummus and a salad.
The chicken shawarma plate consisted of thin, wavy strips of white and dark meat chicken under a pale tahini sauce. The chicken bits, still carrying some tang from the marinade, were nicely crisped at the edges from the high heat of the spit.
The falafel plate features five large pieces of ground chickpeas molded into hockey puck shapes and fried dark brown. While not appealing to the eye, the pale tahini sauce coagulating over the falafel brought some sorely needed moisture to the dish. The portion was ample, enough for two to share, but the pita accompanying it was past its prime.
A lunch visit a few days later was somewhat redemptive, as the pita wrapping the kofta kebab sandwich ($6.99) was noticeably fresher. The kofta kebabs are made from a mixture of finely ground beef and lamb fashioned into a sausage shape, charbroiled and sliced in half. The meat was dry, but a generous payload of tahini sauce augmented it well, and a couple of pickle spears added some snap and brine.
Sahara Express ticks off most of the boxes for a good takeout experience. With its reasonable prices and accessibility, it’s worth considering for lunch or dinner as we hunker down for the indefinite future.