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Saha -- Best Middle Eastern in SF?

indygene Aug 12, 2013 10:31 PM

I'm looking for the best Middle Eastern restaurant in SF that falls into the "nice restaurant" category.

I've scoped the recent threads on this board devoted to Middle Eastern food, including country-specific cuisines. Among the recommendations are Aicha, Arabian Nights, Cafe Zitouna, El Mansour, Fattoush, Old Jerusalem and Palmyra.

Based on what I can tell from the restaurants' websites and the photos on Yelp, all these places (except maybe Fattoush) seem to fall in the "cheap eats" category or slightly above it. Lots of tackiness going on. None of them seems the type of place you'd want to take your mom, a date, or an out-of-town guest.

Does anyone have any suggestions for a "nice restaurant" in SF that serves any type of Middle Eastern food? I'd put Saha in this category, and while it's great, I'm looking to branch out or find something better. (Aziza comes to mind, but it's hard to call it a Moroccan restaurant anymore.)

Thanks in advance for any recommendations or insights.

  1. Robert Lauriston Aug 24, 2013 10:33 AM

    Kokkari (Greek) is quite upscale. They make some of the best mezes I've had.

    Al Masri (Egyptian) is nicer than Old Jerusalem, though it sort of felt to me like a cultural center for belly dancers first and a restaurant second.

    Machka is slightly upscale Cal-Turkish. I haven't been yet.

    1. r
      rlx01 Aug 21, 2013 12:40 AM

      I'm from the Middle East... :)

      Arabian Nights makes "real" Arabic (Palestinian) food -- it's more of a home cooking style, and very good quality. But it's a little bit inconsistent. Good to great at least 80% of the time. Not sure what makes it "cheap" -- it's actually pretty expensive. :)

      The hummus (and other dips) as well as falafel at Old Jerusalem are pretty good. The meat and chicken, not so much.

      Fattoush is over-rated (Americanized, so everything tastes a lot heavier than it should).

      Every meal at Mazzat is microwaved... in front of you.

      I would say that Saha is the best Middle Eastern in terms of quality and ambiance for a "nice" dinner. Saha is Yemeni food, and has a little bit of fusion going too. The mensaf and the knafeh are some of the best dishes in the city (of any cuisine), when they make them well (~70% of the time, IMHO).

      That said, I would have given Saha a 10/10 3 years ago, a 8/10 a year ago and a 7/10 this year. When they have course timing right, and everything's coming out hot and with good spacing, it's fantastic. But that's the exception rather than the norm these days.

      They recently remodelled the restaurant, so there's more space around tables and a skylight that really opens up the space.

      Speaking of Saha -- there's a place called Yemeni's right across the street from it, and I've heard from several Uber drivers that they make some great authentic food there. Haven't had a chance to check it out. Definitely "cheap eats" though.

      Hope this helps. :)

      5 Replies
      1. re: rlx01
        sugartoof Aug 21, 2013 08:05 PM

        "Arabian Nights makes "real" Arabic (Palestinian) food"

        Agree, but I'm pretty sure they're also Lebanese, so there's also a mix of styles with some subtle differences.

        1. re: sugartoof
          vulber Aug 23, 2013 01:11 PM

          this is correct - old jerusalem is palestinian.

          1. re: vulber
            sugartoof Aug 23, 2013 02:26 PM

            True, but it's Levantine cuisine, also with cross regional influences.

        2. re: rlx01
          indygene Aug 24, 2013 08:11 AM

          Thanks rlx01, great post. Agree about Mazzat -- I've tried it and would not go back. Also agree that Saha has declined in recent years, though I haven't been this year, and last time I went I still enjoyed it enough to want to go back.

          With due respect to the restaurants I haven't tried yet, the sense I'm getting from this thread is that there still seems to be an unmet need in the SF restaurant scene. If true, that's a bit surprising, given that we're in a foodie Mecca (rim shot!) with a relatively large Arab population. Restaurateurs, take note.

          1. re: indygene
            sugartoof Aug 24, 2013 09:40 AM

            There was a place called Pashas that never really recovered from a fire. It was a good special occasion place for Persian and Middle Eastern food. Nothing filled that void, but it wasn't very popular towards the end anyway.

            A lot of the places that open are cookie cutter, with generic menus, and the food they serve isn't the quality they would eat at home. They're more concerned with running a solid business and working hard instead. Another problem is a large part of the Bay Area associates the cuisine with health food, and restauranteurs see a place like Sunrise Deli become popular, and figure the bar has been set low, and that's what people like. You could have this same conversation about a lot of cuisines for the exact same reasons.

        3. c
          comfypants Aug 20, 2013 09:44 AM

          Has anyone tried the Lebanese food at Mazzat on Fell and Laguna? Keep meaning to, haven't yet .. looks like a nice spot.

          1. BernalKC Aug 13, 2013 11:28 PM

            Troya is quite nice, at least the Filmore location is. I haven't been to the Clement Street location. Not sure about taking a date there, but I think it fits your criteria pretty well. I found the food to be a bit nicer thank Tuba's, or a bit more modern in a Cal-Turkish way.

            I also like Fattoush and would agree that its a cut above "cheap eats" but its not fancy or a destination, more of a warm, personable neighborhood kind of place.

            1. i
              indygene Aug 13, 2013 08:37 PM

              Thanks everyone for the suggestions! I've tried Helmand and Maykadeh, and will check out Zare, Aicha, Tuba and Arabian Nights. Getting hungry already....

              1. k
                Kalivs Aug 13, 2013 01:09 PM

                I really aicha for morroccan food.

                1. s
                  slew Aug 13, 2013 08:40 AM

                  Saha was too 'cramped' for me...

                  I usually don't mind tight seating, but I found Saha a bit worse than norm... IMHO.

                  I like Zare (at Fly Trap), and Hoss is a really nice chef/host/dude... :)

                  1. Robert Lauriston Aug 13, 2013 08:26 AM

                    Tuba is nice. Turkish.


                    I didn't like the food at Saha enough to want to go back but it has gotten a lot of positive reports here.

                    1. s
                      soupçon Aug 13, 2013 07:20 AM

                      How would you categorize Zare at Fly Trap?

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: soupçon
                        Robert Lauriston Aug 13, 2013 08:23 AM

                        Zare is sort of Cal-Persian.

                        If Persian's OK, Maykadeh is quite nice.

                        1. re: soupçon
                          Burt Aug 19, 2013 04:14 PM

                          Excellent food, a very welcoming and attractive restaurant, and a wonderful host (Hoss, the owner). It is in a different catagory from Fatoush and Tuba which are more casual neighborhood places. Zare is one of our "special occasion" places to go.

                        2. s
                          sugartoof Aug 13, 2013 12:05 AM

                          Arabian Nights has table clothes, and nice presentation.

                          I haven't been back since they started offering coupons, and the quality took a hit, but I could fit the bill.

                          1. Ruth Lafler Aug 12, 2013 10:36 PM

                            If I may be allowed to quibble, Morocco is not in the Middle East, nor is traditional Moroccan food particularly similar to Middle Eastern food.

                            7 Replies
                            1. re: Ruth Lafler
                              indygene Aug 12, 2013 10:43 PM

                              Fair point. I guess I mean food from the Arab world.

                              1. re: indygene
                                Ruth Lafler Aug 12, 2013 10:55 PM

                                Yes, Saha calls itself "Pan Arab fusion" and features some Moroccan dishes.

                                What about Helmand Palace?

                                Or Maykadeh?

                              2. re: Ruth Lafler
                                sugartoof Aug 13, 2013 12:34 AM

                                Not exactly.

                                Morocco is a North African country which can be classified as part of the Greater Middle East, with cultural and historical crossover to what has predominantly been culturally Arab (Maghrebi, etc.), Berber, Moorish, and at times Bedouin, and Jewish influenced populations. The food is about as distinct as it is similar, so it's accurate to link the culinary traditions, and recognize the equivalent dishes. Furthermore, most Moroccan restaurants in the US do fit within generic Middle Eastern or Mediterranean umbrellas because of what they offer on their menus.

                                1. re: sugartoof
                                  Ruth Lafler Aug 13, 2013 06:56 AM

                                  Calling Morocco part of the Middle East distorts the term such as to make it meaningless.

                                  1. re: Ruth Lafler
                                    sugartoof Aug 13, 2013 08:31 AM

                                    That statement is meaningless to anyone who understands the culinary traditions of the region, including Iraqi, and Persian cuisines.

                                    1. re: sugartoof
                                      Ruth Lafler Aug 13, 2013 09:36 AM

                                      "Middle East" is a geographical region, not an ethnic or cultural one.

                                      1. re: Ruth Lafler
                                        The Chowhound Team Aug 13, 2013 12:53 PM

                                        I think most people have an idea of what's being talked about here from a food perspective, so even if these aren't precisely the right terms, it's probably time to let this conversation go and instead focus on suggesting restaurants that will work for the original poster. Thanks.

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