History has shown that cultures which thrived and advanced most rapidly are those which settled in arable areas rife with natural resources. The “Cradle of Civilization” where many of the earliest human civilizations evolved is in a seemingly unlikely region of the Middle East in which most of the land is too dry for farming. In this largely desolate region lies a narrow strip of land known as the “Fertile Crescent” because of its fecund soil and life-giving waters.
The Fertile Crescent lies in the ancient area stretching in an arc from the Nile to the Tigris and Euphrates, an area the Greeks of Biblical times called Mesopotamia which means “between the rivers.” This historical region, which includes some of the very best farmlands in the world, includes parts of or the entirety of the modern day nations of Iraq, Syria, Israel, Lebanon and Jordan. The Bible–from Genesis to the Gospels–overflows with references to the foods of the time as grown in this region.
In Biblical times the most common and important foods were bread (the staff of life), olive oil (used instead of butter), milk and cheese from flocks of goats and sheep, vegetables (the most common of which were lentils and beans) from gardens and fruits (usually grapes, figs and pomegranates) from orchards. Those living close to waters would enjoy fish and only on very special occasions might a family partake of meat. Because there was no sugar, honey was the only sweetener available.
Many of these foods remain staples of the region today and thanks to the ever-shrinking world, the cuisine of the Middle East can be enjoyed throughout the world–nearly as good and as fresh as if consumed in the ancient environs. The Duke City is home to several very good to excellent restaurants showcasing the foods of the Fertile Crescent. Best of all these restaurants are wholly authentic, featuring foods prepared in the time-honored, traditional manner, not dumbed down for the American palate. The owners of these restaurants are emigrees, usually no more than one generation removed from the land of their birth.
Among them are Manny and Helen Neshewat who emigrated from Jordan in their youth to begin lives anew in America. The Neshewat family owned Robbie’s, a series of delis in the suburbs of New York City. When Manny decided to retire, he considered Florida and Arizona, but fell in love with New Mexico and its moderate climate. Retirement was not to be. After decades of working virtually sun-up to sun-down, he couldn’t make himself sleep in past six. Three years after moving to Albuquerque, he and Helen returned to the business they love–launching the Times Square Deli Mart, a combination deli and convenience store they opened in 2007 near the University of New Mexico (UNM).
Within a year, they also launched the Sahara Middle Eastern Eatery about a mile east of the Times Square Deli Mart. Manny and Helen are still very much involved in the two restaurants–as well as a satellite of the Sahara at the UNM Student Union Building (SUB), a satellite of the Times Square Deli Mart at the UNM Hospital and a supermarket in Belen–but the day-to-day management is now in the hands of their progeny. Tony Neshewat manages the Times Square Deli Mart while Omar manages the Sahara operation.
A commonality among the sibling restaurants is the hospitality with which diners are treated. The amiable Neshewats treat one and all as welcome guests whose visits is valued. It’s a philosophy that cultivates repeat visits and customer loyalty. The graciousness of the Neshewats is a genuine and refreshing change from restaurants in which customers are treated as faceless, nameless entities. The food at both the Times Square Deli Mart and the Sahara Middle Eastern Eatery is a bonus.
The Sahara is actually the family’s first venture into preparing and serving the cuisine of their motherland. It was a venture into the unknown, both from the standpoint that the deli business was what they knew best and from not knowing whether or not Middle Eastern cuisine would be well accepted in the UNM area. From the onset, the Sahara has done very well, garnering rave reviews from critics and diners alike. Save for the pita (which is procured from California), every item on the menu is homemade and prepared authentically from recipes handed down through the generations as well as recipes acquired from restaurants in Jordan.
Beef, lamb and chicken are sliced specially for the restaurant from Adam’s Nice and Fresh, the family’s supermarket in Belen. The quality shows. The thinly sliced shawarmah is marinated for anywhere from 24 to 36 hours in a seven spice marinade which includes cardamom, allspice, cloves, vinegar and a host of other ingredients. The marinade penetrates deeply, imbuing the beef and lamb amalgam with mouth-watering flavors. The shish-kabob, a charbroiled skewer of fresh cuts of lamb, might be even more delicious, each moist and tender bite-sized portion as good as it can be.
For the big eaters among us, the best bet is a combo platter (otherwise known as the “Break the Chain” special because host Ryan Scott loves it) which is brimming with your choice of beef and lamb shawarma, chicken shawarma, chicken tika, kafta kabob, shish kabob, falafel or Greek gyro and basmati rice, falafel, hummous, pickles, fattoush salad, dolmas and fresh pita. This veritable family-sized feast will set you back less than twelve dollars. In today’s austere economic times, you’ve got to appreciate that value.
Basmati rice is not typically associated with Middle Eastern food, but that didn’t stop Omar Neshewat from wanting to serve it at the Sahara. He tried a number of different types of rice, but determined Basmati, a long-grain rice grown in India, to have the properties of moistness, fragrance and delicateness he wanted. Sahara’s Basmati rice is fluffy, moist and delicious, seasoned with tumeric and saffron. It’s among the very best rice you’ll find anywhere in the city.
The fattoush salad, a mixed green garden salad with toasted pita croutons drizzled with a simple lemon and olive oil dressing, is also quite good, but it’s the hummous with which Omar takes more pride. Sahara uses hundreds of pounds of chickpeas per week to create their hummous, rehydrating the chickpeas for twelve hours on a custom-made machine whose express purpose is hummous.
Helen, the affable matriarch of the Neshewat family, creates the desserts for Sahara from scratch. The pistachio baklava is over-the-top, a paragon of deliciousness and among the very best I’ve ever had. Each diamond-shaped slice is unadulterated bliss. Helen uses ghee (clarified butter) to give the baklava its moistness. Though soaked with honey syrup, this baklava is not cloying as some Greek renditions tend to be. Another popular dessert is the homemade rice pudding which is made with rosewater.
Biblical scholars believe the typical worker’s midday repast was a simple meal of bread with onions. In contemporary times, it’s great to know that terrific Middle Eastern cuisine in profligate portions can be found in the Sahara Eatery where you’ll be treated like a welcome guest.
Sahara Middle Eastern Eatery
2622-A Central Avenue, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 24 September 2011
1st VISIT: 15 May 2008
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Pistachio Baklava, Shish Kabob Combination Plate, Shawarmah Combination Plalte