200206SAHARA

Nikki Bolka, a member of The Gazette’s restaurant review team The Four Dishes, enjoyed this beef shawarma entree from Rockford, Illinois’ Sahara Palace during a recent carryout buffet with the group’s other members. The dish featured beef cooked rotisserie-style and cut into thin strips.

ROCKFORD, ILLINOIS

On a cold, dreary night, getting takeout and eating at home seemed like the right thing to do.

We have a weakness for ethnic cuisine, so I headed down to Rockford, picked up a smorgasbord of delicacies from Sahara Palace and invited everyone over for dinner.

Sahara Palace is one of those modest restaurants with an unassuming atmosphere but a menu that wows. The owner is from Palestine, and the cuisine is a nice mix from the broader region and includes both Mediterranean and Middle Eastern flavors.

The restaurant makes everything fresh, and it advertises using halal meats and topping its dishes with parsley and sumac. Not familiar with sumac? It’s a bit tart and savory, is widely used in Middle Eastern cooking, and is one of my favorite newly discovered spices.

The owner was very helpful as I made my selections, and he kindly boxed it all up so we could unwrap with “oohs” and “aahs” in the warmth of my home.

I could live on falafel ($3.99 for six pieces, $6.99 for a dozen) and was happy to discover those at Sahara Palace are wonderful. They have enough parsley to bring an added element of freshness to the crunchy treat, and the garlicky tahini sauce that accompanies the appetizer is exceptional.

Another winner was the hummus ($6.99 large) with pita, which we couldn’t stop raving about. Sahara’s hummus had an extra creaminess and brightness that made it my favorite dish. It is blended with mashed chickpeas, lemon juice, garlic and tahini. We were eating it by the spoonful and kept coming back to it throughout the meal.

We also enjoyed the foul ($5.99) (pronounced fool), which I loved when traveling in the region many years ago but haven’t found anywhere else since. Made with mashed beans and flavored with garlic, lemon juice, olive oil and spices, the dish was garnished with diced tomatoes and parsley. It had a mild, earthy taste, and it was one of Jennifer’s favorites, too.

The kibbeh balls ($6.99 for four pieces) were coated with cracked wheat and came deep-fried. The crispy balls of meat and onions had a mystery spice (cinnamon or maybe clove?) and a hint of sweetness. Dipped in the tahini sauce, they were delicious. Dipped in the hummus, they were fabulous!

After sampling all of the appetizers, we unpacked our entrees and passed them around.

I love anything with masala spice, so I dug into the tandoori chicken and rice ($12.99) first. The chicken was tasty but just a tiny bit dry. Our entrees all came with Arabic salad—a fantastic chopped salad of shredded lettuce, diced cucumber and tomato in a simple lemon and olive oil dressing, then topped with parsley and a liberal sprinkling of sumac. It was another absolute must-have.

The lamb shish kabobs ($15.99) were chewy on the outside, tender on the inside with a slightly sweet yet tangy flavor. It’s funny how every culture has its own comfort food, and Helene found comfort in the rice. Long grains of yellow rice were lightly spiced with a lemony tang. Paired with the lamb, it allowed the sweet flavor of the meat to come through.

Another prized dish was the taouk chicken and rice ($12.99), which Jennifer found outstanding. It featured large hunks of tender, marinated chicken liberally seasoned with Middle Eastern spices.

Nikki went straight to her favorite, the beef shawarma ($12.99). Unlike the meat in our other entrees—which was served in bite-sized chunks—the beef in the shawarma was cooked rotisserie-style and then cut into thin, flavorful strips.

We ended our feast with a bit of sweetness. The baklava is not homemade, but it should be sampled. It is not like the usual baklava, which is sticky and syrupy with a tendency to be overly sweet. This was buttery, flaky and not too sweet, and it held together nicely. The taste of walnuts was front and center.

If we had dined in the restaurant, we would have tried an Arabian coffee ($1.99) with our dessert. But since we were at my house, we settled for hot tea. All in all, it was a satisfying end to a truly enjoyable meal.

The next time you’re on State Street in Rockford and want to try something new and intriguing, stop by Sahara Palace (which adjoins Valli Produce, another worthwhile stop), and I promise you’ll be well rewarded.

The Four Dishes—Nikki Bolka, Helene Ramsdell, Jennifer Spangler and Beth Webb—review regional restaurants for The Gazette.

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