Saha Brings Classic-Contemporary Middle Eastern Cuisine to Downtown Berkeley

Saha's new home on Shattuck Ave. in Berkeley
Saha's new home on Shattuck Ave. in Berkeley (Wendy Goodfriend)

For 12 years, Saha was housed in the Hotel Carlton in San Francisco, a boutique hotel in the Tenderloin, where it was fairly well hidden except to those who knew the talented chef, Mohamed Aboghanem, a native of Yemen (Watch Saha featured on Check, Please! Bay Area in 2011). Now his fans have to drive across the bridge to Berkeley, where Saha has reimagined itself—right on Berkeley’s main drag, Shattuck Avenue, in the beautiful Art Deco-style Berkeley Fine Arts Building at the corner of Haste Street. The East Bay has welcomed Saha as Oakland’s hot restaurant scene trickles over to now-booming Berkeley.

Chef/Owner Mohamed Aboghanem in Saha open kitchen.
Chef/Owner Mohamed Aboghanem in Saha's open kitchen. (Wendy Goodfriend)

The expansive menu covers weekend brunch, lunch and dinner with variations on the theme of classic Middle Eastern dishes. We stopped in for a weekday lunch and were impressed with every aspect of the operation, from the careful, exciting cooking to the gracious service and elegant, but relaxing, space.

Saha interior dining area and open kitchen.
Saha's interior dining area and open kitchen. (Wendy Goodfriend)
Saha interior area.
Saha's bar area. (Wendy Goodfriend)

Many have called Aboghanem’s cooking Middle Eastern “fusion,” but I experience it more as classic, i.e., grounded in Arabic traditions, with local flourishes in both ingredients and techniques, including many interpretations of recipes that are gluten-free and vegan, such as the Yemeni fouel (sometimes spelled “foul” and pronounced like “fool”) we started with, the centerpiece of which is dried fava beans. The deep, earthy beans are stewed with tomato, onion, garlic, cumin and za’atar, then coarsely blended and served with pita baked daily for the restaurant by Aroma’s Hamati Bakery in San Bruno.

Saha Yemeni fouel with fresh pita bread.
Saha's Yemeni fouel with fresh pita bread. (Wendy Goodfriend)

Because the lunch menu is heavy on sandwiches, we tried three different kinds: the falafel pita, the kofta (minced lamb) burger, and the wild salmon burger, all of which were spot-on.

The Saha falafel.
The Saha falafel. (Wendy Goodfriend)

The falafel (vegan) was a generous portion of crisply fried falafel served in chewy, absorbent pita with hummus, tahini, big chunks of cucumber and tomato and minced parsley and mint. The rich hummus and tahini covered every inch of the filling, so that there were no dry bites. Ask for the very spicy homemade harissa on the side.

The Saha kofta (minced lamb) burger.
The Saha kofta (minced lamb) burger. (Wendy Goodfriend)

The kofta was made from ground Niman Ranch lamb, cooked to a perfect medium-rare, slathered in harissa aioli and puréed avocado on a sesame-seed bun, reminiscent of an American drive-in burger with secret sauce, only with much better meat. Arugula and sliced tomatoes were tucked underneath the lamb.

The Saha wild salmon burger.
The Saha wild salmon burger. (Wendy Goodfriend)

But the crowning glory was the salmon burger, made from wild-caught fish, chopped coarsely and mixed with herbs and, somehow, miraculously cooked to medium-rare. So, you get a burger (rather than filet) texture, but the fish isn’t overcooked. Toppings, in addition to arugula and tomato, were roasted peppers, pickled red onions and garlic aioli. This is a lunch I’ll be back for, again and again.

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Though we were stuffed to the gills, we shared the 'Ya Mama,' a mixture of roasted dates and pears with marzipan and chocolate baked in tender phyllo.

Saha 'Ya Mama' dessert.
Saha's 'Ya Mama' dessert. (Wendy Goodfriend)

The airy, high-ceilinged space has a partially open kitchen behind one of two bars and a loving tribute to the chef’s recently deceased mother written in Arabic on a central column. Our server, Marina, was particularly knowledgeable, patient, and thorough in helping us sort through the menu.

Chef Mohamed Aboghanem in Saha dining area. The column with Arabic writing in the background is a tribute to the chef's recently deceased mother.
Chef Mohamed Aboghanem in Saha's dining area. The column with Arabic writing in the background is a tribute to the chef's recently deceased mother. (Wendy Goodfriend)

Unlike the vague moniker “fusion food” that conjures a hodgepodge of ingredients, Aboghanem’s cooking sings, clearly and resonantly, with the discrete components of each recipe, resulting in bright, bold, confident flavors.

The fresh and flavorful salad that accompanied the sandwiches. Homemade soup of the day is an alternative option.
The fresh and flavorful salad that accompanied the sandwiches. Homemade soup of the day is an alternative option. (Wendy Goodfriend)

Saha
Address: 
2451 Shattuck Ave.
Berkeley, CA 94704 [Map]

Ph: (510) 900-2457

Hours: Mon, 11:30am-2pm; Tues-Fri, 11:30am-2pm and 5:30-close; Sat-Sun, 10:30am-2pm and 5:30pm-close
Facebook: Saha

Price Range: $$-$$$ (sandwiches, $11-$14; lunch entrées $18-$22)

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Watch Saha being featured on Check, Please! Bay Area in 2011

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