When Sami Mina opened Aladdin's Natural Eatery in 1979, he was one of the first to introduce Mediterranean cuisine to Rochester. Now, Mina is marrying the taste and health benefits of the Mediterranean diet with fast-casual dining in his latest venture, Saha Med Grill. The first location opened on University Avenue in September 2014, the second opened in Pittsford last February, and the third is scheduled to open this month in College Town.
Judging by the crowds and fast expansion, Saha seems to have found a winning combination: quality ingredients, healthy cuisine, modest pricing ($8-$13 range), and fast service without being fast food. Diners choose from a slate of salads, soups, wraps, and grain bowls, and customize them to their liking. After making a selection, they follow a server down a cafeteria-style line, picking and choosing a variety of fillings and toppings from the basic (lettuce, tomatoes, and onions) to the luxurious (pine nuts, black olives, artichoke hearts). Soft drinks, beers, and wines are available, and after checking out, customers carry their trays to a polished wood table (or on the outdoor patio in nicer weather) and eat.
If you're thinking, "This sounds like Chipotle," you're not wrong. But the food here is fresher, more lively, and delicious.
The Greek salad ($8, plus $3-$4 depending on toppings) is a riot of colors in a bowl; a taste of perpetual summer. It comes standard with mixed or romaine lettuce, grape tomato halves, black olives, red onions, cucumbers, pepperoncini, and sweet bell peppers. The Greek dressing is made simply with olive oil and herbs, including a hint of mint — a small addition that invigorates the entire salad. Feta is optional if ordering vegan, but I like its salty tang too much to leave it out. On occasion, I top my salad with long strips of aromatic gyro meat; other times, I prefer plump, sweet, grilled shrimp.
The quinoa grain bowl ($6-$8, depending on size) takes the Peruvian grain, which can be bitter and gritty, and makes it tender and tempting. It's especially good topped with tourlou, a mix of soft hunks of eggplant and chickpeas in an umami-rich tomato sauce. The vegetarian version of the bowl is finished with wheels of squash, red and yellow bell peppers, and more eggplant, each veggie branded with grill marks. I should know better by now, but I'm still surprised at how filling and satisfying a vegan and gluten free meal like this can be.
I also like the pita wrap ($8), stuffed with lamb shawarma. Saha preps its shawarma by rubbing it with a 12-spice blend before roasting. The spices include cinnamon, cardamom, cumin, and coriander; it's lovely to taste and smell spices frequently used for baking sweets in a savory dish. The wrap is customizable, but I like it with tomatoes, onions, dill pickles, and a drizzle of tzatziki sauce, with more on the side for dipping. A falafel stuffed wrap is also good, either with plain tahini or a version made spicy with harissa.
The falafel ($4 as an appetizer), cooked in olive oil, is the only fried item the menu — a little bit of oil stays on your fingers if you eat them by hand. (Mina's kitchen tried a baked version, but it was not as good and didn't make the cut.) The falafel have a deeply-browned crisp crust, yielding to a tender, pale green interior. They're a little dry without some tahini, but the two go together like PB&J, and they are too good to pass up.
Other recommended items include the hummus ($4) served simply with a touch of extra virgin olive oil and pita triangles; the tabbouleh ($4), a finely chopped salad made with tomatoes, parsley, mint, and quinoa, and tossed with lemon juice and olive oil; and the spanakopita ($4), with crispy flaky phyllo leaves and tangy spinach-feta filling. Each can be sampled in the $10 appetizer plate.
Both the University and Pittsford locations are as stylish, contemporary and comfortable as a full-service restaurant. The kitchen looks spotless — it's in full view of the customers, so it has to be — and the service is friendly and efficient.
Find Laura Rebecca Kenyon on Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest @LauraKenyon, and dig through her recipe archive at LauraRebeccasKitchen.com.