I have a fondness for Middle Eastern food, as evidenced by anyone who has read this monthly vegan column over the past three years. I also have a pretty high threshold when it comes to ambiance at restaurants. I suppose that's largely because I'm a chef, and I'm enthusiastic about food.
If it looks good and tastes good, then I'm good. And that's great, because Sahara Café isn't a destination for a meal with romantic lighting. Indeed, the tiny dining spot looks a little worse for wear if the duct-taped booth seat is any indication. But I'm going to guess it's all due to high traffic for good reason: a prime location in the heart of Manitou Springs and, more important, the food.
My first bit of advice is to not get too attached to what you see on the menu. On my first, second and third visits to Sahara Café, I had my heart set on the fava bean plate. Making that love 'em or hate 'em legume the centerpiece is inspired, if you ask me. But each time I ordered the dish, I was told they didn't have fava beans. Exasperated, I finally asked when they might expect to get them. I was told whenever they bought them, but they hadn't had them all summer.
Fine. Let's talk about the two things I repeatedly order: the veggie plate and the falafel basket.
The veggie plate ($9.45), also referred to as dolmas (stuffed grape leaves), is a solid meal and vegan when you hold the tzatziki. This striking plate has grape leaves wrapped around rice, creamy hummus with just a hint of spice, a fresh and flavorful tabouli salad filled with bulgur, fresh parsley and mint, and crisp vegetables via a simple lettuce salad with pickled vegetables.
If you ever wondered what vegans eat, this is it: vegetables, grains and legumes. Fresh flavor from the food itself, and little tweaks such as adding pickled vegetables, add a plant-based meatiness (umami!) that feeds the senses.
The falafel basket ($8.95) is comfort food with zero guilt. Hold the tzatziki, and you'll still have plenty to enjoy: falafel (fried chickpea patties), more of that fantastic hummus, warm pita bread (it's vegan, no whey), and sesame-seed based tahini sauce. I've had a lot of falafel in my life, and what can make or break it is the texture, which is often dry. I was overjoyed when I bit into the warm nugget to find a moist texture nestled in the crunchy, fried exterior. This is the falafel of my dreams.
Other vegan items on the menu include hummus and meze plates (each $8.95). But what you won't find is an adult beverage. Instead, throw yourself into the culture of Sahara Café and enjoy a thick Turkish coffee ($2.59) or earthy sage tea ($1.99).
When you're craving flavorful, healthy plant-based Middle Eastern food and ambiance isn't the motivator, Sahara Café's vegan offerings will satisfy whether you're dining in or carrying out. You might not find fava beans, but you will find expertly prepared, protein-rich hummus and falafel served with crisp, fresh vegetables. And really, what more do you need from a pleasing plant-based meal?