Sababa: Middle Eastern Magic For Lunch

At least once a month a coworker and I book a full day of photoshoots in New Haven, alternating our choices for lunch. During one such shoot, she asked how I would feel about a lunch of Middle Eastern meats shaved from a giant spit. The answer was a no brainer, and thus I was introduced to the wonderland of Sababa and its shawarma.

"Shawarma" and "gyro" are the Arabic and Greek names for the same basic concept: spiced and marinated meat (most often lamb or chicken), cut fresh from a slow-roasting spit. What's not to love?

Sababa is a short walk from downtown New Haven, on the first block of Whitney Street. During lunch, a line fills the restaurant but moves relatively quickly. Most take their meals to go, but there are a few tables for eating in.

The menu is written across a chalkboard on the wall, detailing the three protein options and more than two dozen toppings. The "BLT" shawarma ($8 in a pita, $9.50 platter), was the most promising choice, its acronym representing beef, lamb and turkey. Chicken shawarma is $7 in a pocket or $8.50 a platter, while a falafel pocket is $5.25 or $7.50 a platter.

A platter is the best deal, served in a large container with room for more meat and toppings, enough for leftovers for all but the most famished of eaters, plus a piece of delicious pita bread. My coworker has gluten allergies, making me the thankful recipient of her fluffy piece of pita.

After ordering meat at the counter, the customer moves on to Sababa's bevy of incredible toppings. These are what really makes the restaurant stand out. They range from hummus (regular, cilantro lime, or roasted pepper), to chickpeas, to roasted black beans and corn.

Their baba ghanoush has become a personal favorite, with a delightfully rich and smoky flavor. Roasted or fried eggplant is another great addition, and the sweet potato and mushroom salad adds a perfect balance to any spicy or vinegary toppings.

On a recent trip with my girlfriend, my BLT platter was topped with pickled vegetables, baba ghanoush, red cabbage, chopped Israeli salad (a default topping that includes lettuce, tomato, and a light dressing), cilantro lime hummus, red peppers and tahini.

The plate begins with neat organization, but before long the toppings all morph together into a mountain of Mideast flavor, not recommended for picky eaters who don't like their peas and carrots touching.

My girlfriend opted for a falafel pita, topped with Israeli salad and cilantro lime hummus, as well as feta, tzatziki, and tabouli. "Oh my god…" she muttered between voracious bites. "It cannot leave my hands."

Unfortunately Sababa is only open for lunch on weekdays. But for those outside the Elm City, it's well worth taking an extra long lunch.

>>Sababa, 21 Whitney Ave, New Haven, is open Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Credit cards are accepted. Information: 203-776-7482 and sababafalafel.com.