4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs

Sahara Taste of the Middle East (and East County suburbs)

The best pizza in Rancho San Diego isn’t Italian

Straight out of the pizza oven, but there's no tomato sauce on the za'atar flatbread served by Sahara, and cheese is optional.
Straight out of the pizza oven, but there's no tomato sauce on the za'atar flatbread served by Sahara, and cheese is optional.

Having recently moved out of San Diego’s urban center, I’ve spent much of this year reconciling myself to the idea that, beyond the city proper, sometimes independent restaurateurs manage to outdo competition within suburban shopping centers otherwise dominated by national franchises. It’s probably citified prejudice on my part, that when I see a business attached to a mall, or stucco shopping strip, surrounded by the likes of Carl’s Jr or Little Caesars, I assume it’s a chain restaurant.

Place

Sahara Taste of the Middle East

2990 Jamacha, El Cajon

It doesn’t get more suburban than Rancho San Diego, which is basically the ‘burbs of El Cajon, previously best known to me as the place where the 94 freeway ends. That’s where Sahara Taste of the Middle East has been operating ten full years now, run by the same small business operator as the Press Box Sports Lounge next door.

Sahara started out as a tiny counter shop, but thanks to early local success, quickly expanded to more than double in size. Prior to the pandemic, it stayed open past midnight daily, which I couldn’t even say about most restaurants downtown.

Sahara Taate of the Middle East, ten years an family-owned restaurant operating within a suburban strip mall

But what I immediately liked best about the place is its devotion to naturally raised proteins, meaning the chicken and beef going into its shawarmas and kabobs haven’t been pumped up with hormones. Qualms over “conventionally” raised meats is what sowed my mistrust for national chains in the first place.

Sponsored
Sponsored

Sahara’s Middle Eastern menu includes lamb and falafel, and all of the above are served with the familiar pita bread and yellow rice. That said, the place seems to embrace fusion concepts. It also puts its proteins on sandwiches of French bread, and its top selling dishes include Sahara Fries ($14-15), a take-off on carne asada fries, topped with either beef or chicken shawarma (or half and half), then drizzled with copious tahini, garlic aioli, and ranch dressing.

The small counter restaurant quickly grew into a larger, more stylish space.

At my house, we’ve become fascinated by what Sahara cooks up inside what most of us would call a bright red pizza oven. The menu terms them flatbreads, but it looks like the Arabic term is manakish, more familiar in the plural manoushe, sometimes billed as Lebanese pizza. And these are remarkably similar to pizza: you may even order them topped with cheese ($6.50), roasted vegetable ($8.50), and/or meat toppings ($10.50). But the key difference is there’s no tomato sauce base, nor pesto, nor even garlic cream.

A shawarma bowl of chicken served over yellow rice, with pita bread

What you may get instead is olive oil and the spice blend called za’atar, which creates a super savory, green crust of oregano, thyme, salt, pepper, sumac, and toasted sesame seeds ($6.50).

You can get this *za’atar manoushe with the melted mozzarella (mized with feta) cheese pizza lovers might expect from the round flatbread’s pie-shaped slices, or spread on the strained yogurt/cheese labneh. But it’s pretty satisfying to eat one without anything but za'atar, what apparently may constitute breakfast in Lebanon. The za’atar certainly offers all the flavor you’ll need any time of day — seriously, there’s more to taste here than all but the spiciest of sausage or pepperoni.

A red pizza oven turns out manoushe in the Sahara kitchen.

When I brought some home, the kids got excited to see a pizza box in my hands. But when they saw a seedy sea of brownish green where they expected melted mozzarella to be, they lost interest. Finally, I got them to relent and try the flatbread anyway.

“Mmm!” said the younger, with surprise. “That doesn’t look great, to be honest, but it’s actually kinda awesome!”

Which is great news, because I’d much rather dine on slices of cheesy manakish than hit that Little Caesar’s.

Here's something you might be interested in.
Submit a free classified
or view all
Previous article

Confessions of a San Diego Amazon Flex driver

Boxbringer
Next Article

San Diego in books - PSA crash, WWII doubles the town, Oak Tree Canyon, Led Zeppelin

The Secrets of Harry Bright, Mirror at the End of the Road, Brown Hills, Hammer of the Gods, "Port of Navy Wives"
Straight out of the pizza oven, but there's no tomato sauce on the za'atar flatbread served by Sahara, and cheese is optional.
Straight out of the pizza oven, but there's no tomato sauce on the za'atar flatbread served by Sahara, and cheese is optional.

Having recently moved out of San Diego’s urban center, I’ve spent much of this year reconciling myself to the idea that, beyond the city proper, sometimes independent restaurateurs manage to outdo competition within suburban shopping centers otherwise dominated by national franchises. It’s probably citified prejudice on my part, that when I see a business attached to a mall, or stucco shopping strip, surrounded by the likes of Carl’s Jr or Little Caesars, I assume it’s a chain restaurant.

Place

Sahara Taste of the Middle East

2990 Jamacha, El Cajon

It doesn’t get more suburban than Rancho San Diego, which is basically the ‘burbs of El Cajon, previously best known to me as the place where the 94 freeway ends. That’s where Sahara Taste of the Middle East has been operating ten full years now, run by the same small business operator as the Press Box Sports Lounge next door.

Sahara started out as a tiny counter shop, but thanks to early local success, quickly expanded to more than double in size. Prior to the pandemic, it stayed open past midnight daily, which I couldn’t even say about most restaurants downtown.

Sahara Taate of the Middle East, ten years an family-owned restaurant operating within a suburban strip mall

But what I immediately liked best about the place is its devotion to naturally raised proteins, meaning the chicken and beef going into its shawarmas and kabobs haven’t been pumped up with hormones. Qualms over “conventionally” raised meats is what sowed my mistrust for national chains in the first place.

Sponsored
Sponsored

Sahara’s Middle Eastern menu includes lamb and falafel, and all of the above are served with the familiar pita bread and yellow rice. That said, the place seems to embrace fusion concepts. It also puts its proteins on sandwiches of French bread, and its top selling dishes include Sahara Fries ($14-15), a take-off on carne asada fries, topped with either beef or chicken shawarma (or half and half), then drizzled with copious tahini, garlic aioli, and ranch dressing.

The small counter restaurant quickly grew into a larger, more stylish space.

At my house, we’ve become fascinated by what Sahara cooks up inside what most of us would call a bright red pizza oven. The menu terms them flatbreads, but it looks like the Arabic term is manakish, more familiar in the plural manoushe, sometimes billed as Lebanese pizza. And these are remarkably similar to pizza: you may even order them topped with cheese ($6.50), roasted vegetable ($8.50), and/or meat toppings ($10.50). But the key difference is there’s no tomato sauce base, nor pesto, nor even garlic cream.

A shawarma bowl of chicken served over yellow rice, with pita bread

What you may get instead is olive oil and the spice blend called za’atar, which creates a super savory, green crust of oregano, thyme, salt, pepper, sumac, and toasted sesame seeds ($6.50).

You can get this *za’atar manoushe with the melted mozzarella (mized with feta) cheese pizza lovers might expect from the round flatbread’s pie-shaped slices, or spread on the strained yogurt/cheese labneh. But it’s pretty satisfying to eat one without anything but za'atar, what apparently may constitute breakfast in Lebanon. The za’atar certainly offers all the flavor you’ll need any time of day — seriously, there’s more to taste here than all but the spiciest of sausage or pepperoni.

A red pizza oven turns out manoushe in the Sahara kitchen.

When I brought some home, the kids got excited to see a pizza box in my hands. But when they saw a seedy sea of brownish green where they expected melted mozzarella to be, they lost interest. Finally, I got them to relent and try the flatbread anyway.

“Mmm!” said the younger, with surprise. “That doesn’t look great, to be honest, but it’s actually kinda awesome!”

Which is great news, because I’d much rather dine on slices of cheesy manakish than hit that Little Caesar’s.

Sponsored
Here's something you might be interested in.
Submit a free classified
or view all
Previous article

Confessions of a San Diego Amazon Flex driver

Boxbringer
Next Article

UCSD hands slapped for not returning Indian relics

Juan Vargas staffers, Darrell Issa treated by Middle East lobbyists
Comments
0

Be the first to leave a comment.

Sign in to comment

Sign in

Ask a Hipster — Advice you didn't know you needed Big Screen — Movie commentary Blurt — Music's inside track Booze News — San Diego spirits Classical Music — Immortal beauty Classifieds — Free and easy Cover Stories — Front-page features Drinks All Around — Bartenders' drink recipes Excerpts — Literary and spiritual excerpts Feast! — Food & drink reviews Feature Stories — Local news & stories Fishing Report — What’s getting hooked from ship and shore From the Archives — Spotlight on the past Golden Dreams — Talk of the town The Gonzo Report — Making the musical scene, or at least reporting from it Letters — Our inbox [email protected] — Local movie buffs share favorites Movie Reviews — Our critics' picks and pans Musician Interviews — Up close with local artists Neighborhood News from Stringers — Hyperlocal news News Ticker — News & politics Obermeyer — San Diego politics illustrated Outdoors — Weekly changes in flora and fauna Overheard in San Diego — Eavesdropping illustrated Poetry — The old and the new Reader Travel — Travel section built by travelers Reading — The hunt for intellectuals Roam-O-Rama — SoCal's best hiking/biking trails San Diego Beer — Inside San Diego suds SD on the QT — Almost factual news Sheep and Goats — Places of worship Special Issues — The best of Street Style — San Diego streets have style Surf Diego — Real stories from those braving the waves Theater — On stage in San Diego this week Tin Fork — Silver spoon alternative Under the Radar — Matt Potter's undercover work Unforgettable — Long-ago San Diego Unreal Estate — San Diego's priciest pads Your Week — Daily event picks
4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs
Close