Sabra Grill Cambridge, MA Pub/Cafe
3-Star Pub/Cafe (our ratings)
Delicious food in a dirty hole-in-the-wall location.
“Did you know that Cleopatra invented tabouli?” Amal Rizkallah asks me, the owner of Sabra. “And we use her recipe!” Here is the secret recipe from 2,000 years ago: cut parsley, onion, tomato, “crack wheat”, olive oil, lemon juice, and pepper.
It turns out that she is just kidding, and besides, her place is Lebanese, not Egyptian like the Falafel Palace in Central Square. We’re meeting in her hole-in-the-wall restaurant, call it a cafe, on Eliot Street in Harvard Square.
More tourists come to Lebanon than any other Arab country, she says with pride, partly because of the food, and also because of the ancient Roman ruins and natural caves. “And we have the best Lebanese food in the area,” she says, although she hadn’t heard of Garlic ‘n Lemons in Allston, which I’ve also reviewed. But the two places are far enough apart not to be real competitors.
Amal’s two brothers came to the US from Lebanon first, and then her husband came and she joined him at just 21 years old. Sabra was originally in Newton and now this is their second location. The place is not much to look at, she still has Christmas decorations up in April, and there are tourist bureau photographs of Lebanon on the walls, and a community post board. Crooning oldies play on a real radio, not loudspeakers.
All their food is made fresh daily, in house in a small open kitchen, and they’re the only place around that serves chicken on a skewer, which you need a special machine permit for.
Amal offers me a “mixed plate with chicken and lamb”, which is off the menu but a good way to sample a number of their foods without breaking the bank. (But doesn’t show you the portion sizes or presentation of the meals, so I didn’t take any photos.) Like most restaurant owners, she sits and watches me while I eat. I need to find a way to diplomatically get them to not do that.
Wow! The lamb could not be better. It’s got that crisp outer layer like you’ll find on a roast beef, with perfect meat chew while being spicy and unusual. It comes with a sauce that tastes like melted feta cheese (so that’s how you make feta cheese even tastier!) but turns out is actually made from sesame seeds. Everything here is Halal, the muslim version of kosher, so it’s totally non-dairy, except for the spinach pie. The garlic paste is creamy and not too potent, with olive oil, lemon juice, and fresh garlic, and their falafel is half fava beans & half hummus. They buy the chickpeas and fava beans and grind them fresh on site instead of using powdered beans like their competitors.
The tabouli I could almost believe came from Cleopatra’s genius. They make it fresh almost every day, not weekly like other places, and you can really tell. The greens look fresh, not limp, and you can feel the texture and tickle of each leaf. With a sharp lemon juice mixed in, it’s a real wake up, like a miniature salad with mint. It’s potent enoguh that I’m glad it comes in a small portion.
The baked “kibee” is totally unique, like a ground meat pressed into one substance. It tastes like a falafel without the fried exterior, and it’s somewhat dry, but generally served with tahini sauce. It’s supposed to be served room temperature, but despite the great texture I’d prefer it warm. Anything that is fried or tastes fried is better warm.
The hummus is completely smooth, yet not a liquid – it’s viscous, creamy, but somewhat bland. Yet the grape leaf was way too potent for me. The leaf really tastes like a leaf, like I’m eating it from a palm tree. That was a little too strange for me. The kofta tastes just like BBQ grilled beef, not overly spicy but with a fantastic texture. It tastes as complex as a sausage.
The pocket bread is generic, but I enjoyed the baklava, sweetened with rose water, which falls apart in your mouth. It’s exceptionally flaky and sweet, and has a great mouth feel like honey toast but much smoother, with soft nuts and layers to the taste.
Overall, I don’t know what to say. I’m very surprised by the quality of the food, but that’s because the interior is downscale. Although Amal tells me that she wants to improve their interior but just doesn’t have the cash, I notice that the walls are dirty. Cleaning them wouldn’t cost anything, nor would taking down the Christmas decorations. When I run my fingers across the table, there’s a texture like it’s been cleaned by being wiped down instead of being scrubbed. I’m afraid when I first arrived I spotted Amal answering her cell phone in the middle of handling raw chicken, without washing her hands first. That’s got to be either unsanitary or borderline to it.
So… I dont doubt Amal that Sabra has fresher food than competitors, and the portions I tasted were undeniably good. As a takeout place, I can reccommend Sabra, but as a cafe, I can only give it an average rating. Too bad I have been to Garlic ‘n Lemons, which I think has spoiled me.
20 Eliot St, Cambridge MA