By: Jason Perlow
Palm trees, balmy weather. Spiced and marinated meats cooked on charcoal grills. Fried savory snacks. Freshly baked bread. Refreshing salads. Spiced cookies and sweets.
South Florida? The Caribbean?
No. The Middle East.
The foods of the ancient Levant, a region that includes modern-day Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria, are considered some of the healthiest in terms of impact on our modern diet. They are also incredibly tasty, and extremely compatible with our hot and humid lifestyle.
With summer temperatures approaching the mid-90s and higher, the Mediterranean diet can be a welcome change from the typical and never-ending supply of not-so-healthy South Florida favorites such as burgers, wings, and pizza.
Up until recently, if you really wanted the kind of authentic middle eastern cuisine you might find in Cairo, Beirut, Amman, or Damascus, you would have had to venture out to Sunrise, Plantation or Fort Lauderdale where the Muslim community has established some fantastic halal restaurants and grocery stores, such as Al Natour, Al Salam, and Sahara Market, which just opened a branch of its successful Lauderdale Lakes store and bakery on Wiles Road in Coral Springs just a short drive from Parkland.
When you enter this store it feels a lot like walking into a bazaar in the Old City of Jerusalem, only in miniature and air-conditioned.
Here you will find aisles of products imported from all over the Mediterranean, including Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, including pickles, olive oils, spices, dried fruits and nuts, teas, candies, and sweets. You can also get hookah pipes and associated hardware, too.
You will also find a wide selection of halal specialty items produced here in the United States, such as string and feta-style cheeses, yogurts, as well as charcuterie such as soujouk, a type of spicy beef sausage that goes great cooked with scrambled eggs or as a topping on pizza.
However, that’s only part of what this place has available. The entire front of the store is dedicated to freshly baked goods that come out of its specially-designed rotating oven which pipes out the best pita and flatbreads that I’ve ever eaten in the entire West Broward area.
My favorite is the sfeeha, a Levantine hand pie which is similar to pizza and just the right size for an impromptu snack. The variety here is incredible, including ones made with meat and cheese, chicken and eggs, spinach, tomato and olive, and with rich, thick labneh yogurt.
There is also kibbeh, a large torpedo-shaped croquette made of bulghur wheat, beef, pine nuts, and seasoned with caramelized onions, pomegranate molasses and a famous Arab spice blend known as baharat, which includes cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom.
If you come too late in the day, you will likely miss out on the very excellent felafel which is made and fried up fresh with chickpeas and parsley in the store. In addition to store-made sandwiches, you can buy them individually by the ball if there are any left to eat.
But we are still just scratching the surface of this place. There’s a salad bar which features all kinds of fresh mezze, including Turkish eggplant salad, stuffed grape leaves, tabbouleh, stuffed zucchini, stewed tomato and okra, roasted cauliflower with sesame tahini dressing, rice pilaf, and of course the usual favorites such as cucumber/tomato salad, hummus and smoky and creamy babaghanoush, all of which is sold between $9 and $11 per pound. A separate olive bar is also available for those who are fans of the tiny briny fruit.
There are no prices listed so be sure to check with the counterman if you are unsure of what something costs. The bill at this place can balloon like a camel’s hump very quickly if you don’t keep track of what you throw into your basket.
At this point, if your head isn’t still spinning from the sheer variety of stuff available, you might have also noticed the section of pre-seasoned and prepared halal meat kebabs, sold at $5 each, which are already spiced and ready to throw on the grill, courtesy of the store’s Turkish butcher.
And if you don’t want to cook these yourself, no problem, the store will grill them for you to order. They will put together a platter for you like nobody’s business.
If you actually have money left in your wallet, or room in your stomach — there is dessert. The store bakes all of its own baklavas and has quite a few different kinds to choose from.
They will also cook to order trays of kanafeh nabulsi, which is a famous Palestinian treat from the city of Nablus made from cracked semolina wheat, mild white cheese, topped with crushed pistachios and sweetened with a warm rosewater or orange blossom-flavored simple syrup.
If you come here during lunch hours and are feeling a bit worn out, the store’s resident coffee expert can make you qahwah arabiyya — the original and legendary strong spiced Arab Coffee, which you can order sweetened or unsweetened to have with your dessert. If that doesn’t wake you up, I don’t know what will.
Sahara Mediterranean Market
10786 Wiles Road
Coral Springs FL
Hours: Mon – Fri 9 am. – 8 p.m., Sun 9 a.m. – 7 p.m.
Jason Perlow is a long-time foodie who spent 20 years in the New York City and New Jersey metro areas reviewing restaurants for The New York Times and his personal food blog, Off The Broiler, which he started in 2006 and ran for ten years. He is also the founder of eGullet, a popular food discussion site and not-for-profit organization that was formed in 2001, which was featured on Tony Bourdain's "No Reservations" cable television program.
As a technologist by profession, he writes the Tech Broiler blog for CBS's ZDNet web site. He has been a Coral Springs resident since moving to South Florida in 2012.