Israeli Hits

Sabra serves tasty kosher eats in a splendid atmosphere

Sabra, which opened in April in a building occupied for years by a series of Vietnamese restaurants, is, to our knowledge, Tucson's only glatt kosher restaurant. It's easy to miss in the clutter on Speedway Boulevard--look for the big sign for the rug shop next door that's called, as far as I can tell, "Kilims for Sale."

"Glatt kosher" refers to an intricate and exacting set of standards, but according to a recent discussion in the Arizona Jewish Post, it seems to boil down to a place having a kitchen that adheres to Jewish dietary law so strictly that an Orthodox Jew can eat there. No dairy is served or allowed on Sabra's premises, for example (because meat and dairy cannot be stored or eaten together); only certain types of animal products (beef, chicken, turkey and fish) are served; and so on. The restaurant is supervised by a local rabbi.

It would be shame, though, if only kosher-keeping Tucsonans were to sample the warmth, charm and uneven but interesting Israeli food at this irresistible place.

On a recent midweek night, Sabra was nearly packed with lively, talkative diners, many of whom seemed to know both each other and Monty Blankier, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Helen. Blankier and two adorable, fast-moving servers greeted customers as they arrived, and, even though several large parties occupied the middle of the crowded room, they kept the food and drink coming. (Sabra is waiting for its liquor license, so no alcohol is currently available. Blankier anticipates serving kosher beer and wine from Israel once the city allows it.)

Many dishes--hummus, tabouli, stuffed grape leaves, pita and various eggplant preparations--will be familiar from other genres of Middle Eastern restaurants, and Sabra serves a few American deli classics like hamburgers, a turkey pastrami on rye, a turkey club and fries. There's also a small children's menu.

Naturally, we went for the more exotic-sounding things. My mother, Carolle, ordered the flash-fried tilapia; my son, Dave, had the chicken schnitzel; I ordered kefta kebob (all $14.95). My husband, Ed, ordered the 12-ounce steak ($25.99), and Batya, Dave's girlfriend, sweetly went for a shawarma sandwich ($7.75) so we'd have a sample of the sandwich menu. The entrées all came with a generous helping of the colorful and delicious Israeli salad (finely chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and spices), plus a choice of one other side (seasoned rice, fries or marinated grilled vegetables).

Batya was pleased with her chicken shawarma sandwich (marinated, grilled chicken in a pita with Israeli salad and hummus): It tasted good and held together to the end--an important virtue in a well-stuffed pita. Dave's chicken schnitzel was tasty and juicy in the middle, but a bit overcooked and dry around the edges.

Ed's steak was rare, as he requested, but had a big seam of gristle and fat down the center. He very much liked the part that was edible, though. The huge heap of characterless french fries that came with it tasted as if the potatoes had been frozen. (Actually, they were something like the desiccated fries at In-N-Out Burger, which are obviously prepared exactly to many, many people's taste.) My kefta kebob--seasoned, grilled ground beef topped with a nice, big garnish of minced garlic--was, like Dave's chicken, flavorful but dry. In my experience, most low-latitude cuisines are prone to cooking meat long past the point of being done, no doubt because of the problems of food safety in a hot climate.

Mom's fish was the least successful dish: The tilapia was both rubbery and unpleasantly, inexplicably wet. My guess is that it had been thawed and refrozen, perhaps more than once.

The Turkish coffee ($1.95) I had with dessert was terrific; the baklava ($2.25) was--sorry, here I go again--dry. The muffiny nut cake ($2.25) "with a cherry filling" that turned out to be a single maraschino was disappointing.

All this pick-pick-picking about the food is my duty as a reviewer. It gets in the way, however, of conveying what a swell time we had at Sabra, stone-cold sober on a rainy Wednesday night. The Israeli salad that comes with everything was great. The big, heaped plates were great. The always-full pitcher of water on the table was great, and our server was cute and fast and sweet as pie.

And then there was the singing. We'd noticed a set of drums and a karaoke setup at one end of the room when we came in, and sure enough, at about 8, Monty Blankier--who has a sideline as an entertainer--announced that someone had asked him to do a couple of songs. He gave us "My Way" and "Can't Help Falling in Love," and that was just great, too.

Sabra is a wonderfully comfortable, convivial, unpretentious place that wants to please. Get the shawarma sandwich and big side of the Israeli salad. You'll like it.

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