Cheap Kosher Eats at Sara's Vegetarian Café
"Shalom, y'all" might sound like the start of a Southern politician's stump speech in Boca Raton, but it is in fact one of the mottos posted at Sara's Vegetarian Café in North Miami. So is "good, hot, and a heckuva lot," which likely refers to the hefty portions but could also describe the prodigious nature of the menu. The multipage affair begins with dozens of breakfast items (served 7 to 11 a.m.), continues into categories encompassing soups, salads, sandwiches, smoothies, seafoods, "light dinners," "from the wok," and "house specialties" and then keeps going with a global hodgepodge of dishes deemed Chinese, Cuban, Middle Eastern, European, Mexican, Italian (pizzas and calzones are separate), and American. How they fit cooks from all of those countries into one kitchen, I'll never know.
Like all ethnically overambitious restaurants, Sara's is a jack of all foods, ace of none. But at these prices — all dishes are less than $10 — jacks ain't bad. Most of the winning hands come from Middle Eastern selections and traditional Jewish foods. Blintzes are big, beautiful, soft crêpes rolled around sweetened cheese vibrantly spiked with vanilla; sour cream and blueberry sauce come on the side, to be slathered in accordance with your preferences. Potato pancakes (latkes) and potato knishes are also made with aplomb — the latter an old-fashioned, dome-shaped rendition with crusty pastry covering smooth, onion-flecked potato purée. The kasha knish is a knockout nosh, too, as are potato pierogi (dumplings) — boiled or fried, dappled with fried onions, and drizzled with choice of applesauce or sour cream. And you can never go wrong with smoked salmon and a shmeer of cream cheese on a toasted bagel.
I am not sold on "samburgers," faux-beef hamburger patties that are at most palatable when topped with cheese and strips of "bayken." Don't ask. The "burgerito" is the tastiest veggie burger in town. More accurately, it is a giant falafel, a fat garbanzo-based patty with typical Middle Eastern seasonings, plumped into a generous challah bun and smothered with tachina (tahini) sauce, lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles, a smidgeon of sauerkraut, "and hot sauce, if you like."
Sara's falafels are good in falafel form too, plunked into a pita or piled on a platter with French fries and Israeli salad (tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and parsley). "Chumus" and baba ghannouj are fresh and accented just right, the latter rife with assertive char-grilled eggplant flavor. A $7.95 "combo nosh" brings both with a trio of falafel balls, pickled vegetables, and warm pita bread. Such a deal!
(Unsolved mystery: Why is the tuna burger with lettuce, tomatoes, onions, pickles, and tachina referred to on the menu as a "Tennessee Williams"?)
We skipped Mexico, Italy, China, and Cuba during our excursions here; turns out we lacked the proper gastrointestinal visas. I'm not saying Sara's isn't capable of producing a great chimichanga, lomo saltado, or "chick-in" parmigiana ... or maybe I am.
We went instead for an American "saraloin stake": two veggie burgers topped with shredded carrots and "pasadobla sauce" (mushroom gravy). The taste and texture of the saraloin awakened deep sensory memories from decades ago — more specifically, the last time I had a Swanson Salisbury steak TV dinner.
Kosher pizza didn't bring me back to my brain's childhood freezer section, rather to lunchtime in my old school cafeteria. Harrowing! I suppose those who keep kosher and have fewer options will appreciate it more. Likewise, the less said about Sara's stuffed cabbage the better. I'm not quibbling over the sweet-and-sour sauce, which was actually pretty good, or the juiceless faux-meat-and-rice filling; the whole thing just didn't taste fresh. Because of the extensive menu, I suspect some foods don't get moved out quickly enough.
Just uttering the words "I'll have a Rabbi Lipskar salad" somehow makes me feel like a better Jew. But that's not why I ordered it (at least not the only reason). The salad is a healthful medley of sorts, with lots of vegetables atop the mixed greens — tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, peppers, carrots, turnips, beets, and more — sided by coleslaw and pita bread. A smaller house salad or cup of soup accompanies most entrées; if it's available, go for the split pea: a light, creamy purée sweetened with carrots and onions.
Service is pretty solid. Be nice to the friendly veteran crew; cranky old folks tend to patronize this place, and one can only imagine what these waiters must go through.
Baklava was honey-sweet without being quite as cloying as this dessert can be — but it wasn't especially soft. This establishment can be a little slack when it comes to certain things; the paper pages of the menu stuck inside smudgy plastic coverings, for instance, look as though they haven't been changed since Joe Lieberman was a liberal. Yet Sara's is inexpensive, vegetarian, and kosher (all products are Cholov Yisroel, under supervision by The Orthodox Rabbinical Council of South Florida). It offers a rare panoply of choices to those who keep to strict kosher or vegetarian diets. I'm not saying beggars can't be choosers ... or maybe I am.
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