One of my favorite things about being a restaurant reviewer, besides exploring different flavors, food philosophies and kitchen creativity, is dragging my friends along with me. Oh, sure, when I first got the gig, everyone was all up in my grill to come eat with me. “What a fun adventure!” they said. “Take me with you!”
Little did they know I'd be telling them what to order, and then I'd make them sit there, tummies grumbling, while I attempted to take a clandestine photograph. “You're blocking my light! Move your cell phone! Act like it's your birthday!” I then get to taste everything on their plate, and when it's all done, they still have to pay for themselves.
Before I knew it, I started getting excuses like, “Yeah, um, I'm trying not to eat out as much—saving money, you know.” And “Oh, I've gotta lose some weight. Maybe next month?” It's not so glamorous, this food-reviewing stuff.
But I truly can't complain, particularly when I manage to lure unwitting co-workers into little gems like Sajj Mediterranean Grill in Hillcrest. Often referred to as “Off the Sajj,” this Lebanese joint has a menu full of tasty value, from kabobs to shawarma and everything in between.
The space is bright and welcoming, with warmly painted brick walls and an airy skylight letting in streams of sunshine. You place your order at the counter, next to a refrigerated case filled with sweet and crumbly treats like baklava from Baklava King and a sandy, buttery, date-filled confection called Mamoul Dates. Try dessert first while you wait for your meal.
Saj (typically spelled with one “j”) is a Middle eastern flatbread, similar to the more ubiquitous pita, but with a chewiness and crunch that comes from being cooked on a hot iron surface. Don't miss out on an order of hummus—it's outrageously thick, without being dry, and spreads like a luxurious garlicky paste over the saj. With a drizzle of olive oil, herbs and spices, this starter is the perfect way to enjoy the chickpea dish.
Vegetarians should check out the mana-keesh wraps. Mana-keesh is a blend of thyme, oregano, sesame seeds, olive oil and the woefully underused spice sumac. Try the Mana-Keesh Ultimate; the lemony spices of the sumac and thyme are mixed with tomato, kalamata olives, cucumber, mint leaves and thick and tangy lebne, the cheese made from strained yogurt.
On a cold February day, the Meat Pie Combo was hot and filling—plus, what could go wrong when you put pie and meat together? The ground beef was delicately seasoned, and the steam from the hot meat softened the saj around it just enough to make it soft, chewy and hearty. Don't overlook the blisteringly hot bowl of lentil soup that comes with the combo. It's blended in a way that leaves the soup smooth yet with a little chunkiness. Dress it with a squirt of lemon, and it stands on its own as a rustic bowl of goodness.
None of the wraps are more than $7, and with falafel, feta cheese and fried eggplant, along with Lebanese-style sausage, Baba Ghanouj and Gyro meat, there's no shortage of delicious fillings to try.
Though the lamb kabob may not stand up to more popular shops around town in terms of size and quantity of meat, the lamb was tender, flavorful and, for $6.99, a great lunch. The shawarma plates are not particularly memorable, but they're simple and tasty, with tender meat, rice and more of that spackle-thick hummus I can't stop thinking about.
Sajj has been open for only four months, and our hostess was a bit scattered, but the staff is courteous and warm and the food was served quickly and with a smile. I'm looking forward to forcing more friends to join me there.
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