Star of za’atar brings middle east to Evans

Hospitality is an art form — a cultural imperative — in the Middle East. Strangers traveling in Jerusalem find that
when asking for directions, residents will not only escort them to their destination, but also offer them a meal and put them up for the night.

Khalid Sarsour infuses this approach into Khalid’s Café, his brand new enterprise open in Eagle Point Shopping Center in Evans.

“I want them when they come in here really to feel they are home,” he said. “They can learn about the spirit, listen to the music; listen to some of the language, the hospitality, the big heart, the style and open door for friendship.”

The restaurant focuses on Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine, which Sarsour described with love.

“It’s very attractive, it’s tasty, it’s healthy, and it has a great smell,” he said. “It’s very unique; it’s my culture, too.”

Sarsour emigrated from Jerusalem and then spent 14 years in Miami in the supermarket and restaurant businesses. He
opened Khalid’s Café after eight years in Augusta.

“It’s my dream,” he said, to own a restaurant, “because I love to cook.”

Sarsour rolled stuffed grape leaves by hand in a kitchen fragrant with lemon, and later poured olive oil onto a saucer with a helping of za’atar (“zah-tahr”) into which we dipped pita bread while we discussed the menu. Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisines are considered healthier than Western fare. The food has a high-protein, low-fat profile, and meals focus on grilling and roasting.

Demand for Middle Eastern food is increasing. In much the same way interest in Italian cuisine surged after soldiers enjoyed it during World War II, Middle Eastern cuisine has taken off due to soldiers’ stays in Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. In fact, soldiers stationed at Fort Gordon stopped by the shop daily during renovations, drawn merely by word-of-mouth excitement spread in pre-opening anticipation.

The menu includes a wide selection of lamb, beef, chicken and fish specialties, but vegetarians will find themselves a new home here.

“A lot of folks just have that tendency not to eat meat — let’s say they have a health problem and have to stay away from meat or chicken,” Sarsour said, and the menu includes a great deal beyond the soup-and-salad routine, including couscous, baba ghanoush, fatayer stuffed with feta cheese or spinach, and a baked veggie meal.

Turmeric, oregano, paprika, mint and saffron perfume meals cooked using fragrant olive oil. Tart lemon and earthy tahini — made from sesame seeds — infuse sauces. Possibly the most unfamiliar flavor on the menu is za’atar, a spice mixture that contains roasted sesame seeds, ground fresh oregano, lemon extract, salt, black pepper, thyme and sumac (not of the poison variety, but a member of the pistachio family). It awards meals an unparalleled savory, nutty flavor.

Sarsour brings an extensive knowledge of Middle Eastern cooking learned at his family’s restaurants. This is his first foray into his own eatery. To keep the experience authentic, he tried to locate other immigrants who could properly prepare the dishes and who could guide diners through unfamiliar dishes with Lebanese, Egyptian and Turkish influences.

Certain appetizers like hummus, falafel and tabouli can be had at downtown eateries and specialty grocers. But Sarsour’s menu includes traditional dishes never before prepared in an Augusta restaurant, including Palestinian specialties that are his pride.

There is “oozi,” a rosemary baked chicken with saffron rice, and “maftoul,” home-style couscous sautéed with onions and traditional spices, served with beef or chicken. “Kallayah” is a dish of chopped beef or lamb pan sautéed with tomatoes and onions, and “sayadiya” is a lightly fried fillet of grouper with sautéed onions and seasoned rice. Desserts include harisa, a traditional pudding topped with sliced almonds, and kunafa that is flavored with a sweet cheese used in a manner similar to ricotta. Beverages include sodas, Arabic and Turkish coffee, fresh mint tea and Sarsour’s original nonalcoholic juice cocktails, including strawberry, pineapple and banana.

“Those are special recipes that I make here,” he said, and added that he expects to add pomegranate juice in the future, a seasonal specialty that is gaining steam as a health drink miracle.

The restaurant opened for lunch and dinner this Monday. Prices range from $7.95 for a meal-in-itself combination appetizer plate to $14.50 for a stuffed flounder dish called “samak mahshi.” Cheeseburgers and chicken make up the kids’ menu, but several dippable appetizers make healthy and kid-friendly choices. Lighter fare includes five different salads and a selection of wraps and sandwiches.

Khalid’s Café is located at 4534 Washington Road in the Eagle Point Shopping in Evans. Call 706-306-7955 for information or reservations.


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