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Review: Humble Dearborn shawarma stop Al Saha impresses

No-frills Middle Eastern



The world of food has always been one filled with immigrants; the restaurant scene especially has been, is now, and will continue to be a place where immigrants find widespread opportunities for success. There's something culturally universal about the power of food. Immigrants and their descendants create these restaurants because they're seeking something from their culture, something familiar and achievable, and somewhere where hospitality and kindness can always be found when in a strange land. It's beautiful with a tinge of sadness, and it highlights the complexity of the cultural mixture that is our country.

Dearborn is an intriguing paradigm, though, since so many restaurants cater — in one way or another — to the unique preferences of the neighborhoods that surround them, as different groups from different countries in the Middle East settle block by block in a beautiful cultural quilt. Neighborhood bar-and-grills start with people trying to feed their friends; so too do the neighborhood shawarma joints. There's so much good food to pick from, and with so many variations, it's hard to pick.

Al Saha might be easy to drive by if you weren't looking for it, as you cruise down a stretch of Warren Avenue packed with multilingual signs. It's the end unit in a strip mall — as so many small restaurants of this type are — and doesn't look like much from the outside. Inside, the decor suggests a personal aesthetic: sponge-painted orange walls, brown-painted wainscoting, and a few nautical items accompanied by three metal biplanes, hanging in corners of the ceiling. Somehow, though, it's comforting to know the real attraction here is not some simulated experience of a meal in a luxurious palace, but rather plate upon plate of delicious food served by knowledgeable cooks. It's warm and inviting.

At your table, there's a bottle of olive oil. With your pita, a dish of pickled turnips and pepperoncini arrives. It's hospitality in simple acts that signal the food here is to be enjoyed. There's nothing on the menu to really surprise anyone. It's the staples of regional cuisine you see at most any similar place: kebabs, shawarma, grape leaves, hummus, and a particularly refreshing lemonade slush. The offerings at Al Saha are simply executed with care and love, and that enables them to offer a better plate of food to each and every guest.

The hummus is silky smooth, sieved and worked into a flavor-rich accompaniment to everything on the menu. Order a dish and keep it around to dip your shawarma, sandwich, kefta, or just the stray pita that you're bound to keep eating. The fried kibbee came highly recommended, and did not disappoint — but we also suggest considering the kibbee nayee, which fulfills our love of tartare and carpaccio in yet another delightful manner.

Salads are an interesting way to illustrate the simple differences in regional cuisines, and so it's worth noting that most of the salads on the menu revolve around tomatoes, cucumbers, and simple accompaniments. The Lebanese salad with lettuce, tomato, cucumber, and fresh herbs is only so different from the Arabic salad with tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, and parsley; all of these are simple, unique variations on foods that have only been in the region for the last several hundred years. Even the Greek salad still revolves around these nightshade relatives, which flourish in the Mideast's climates. They're a reminder that ultimately, we all eat what we enjoy, and that's much the point: Sit down, and enjoy.

The entrees are reasonably priced, even the lamb chops, and come with portions that border on uncomfortably large. The evidence of a spirit of generosity comes through in making sure your guests never go hungry. The rice is particularly good, which might be an odd compliment unless you think about the meats and vegetables as garnish to a big plate of rice; instead of that vermicelli-and-almonds stuff you find elsewhere, this is cooked with some spices and flavor, and serves as an enjoyable base.

The lamb kabobs are flavorful, seasoned judiciously and grilled carefully; the kefta is superbly executed, with the onions playing as a part of the seasoning rather than overpowering it. The kefta is served with a little broiled piece of pita, topped with some harissa and onions. It's a very good accompaniment, and one that doesn't appear in other places we've been. Al Saha's shawarma is similarly flavorful and still juicy, basted and cooked slow on the spit; get it with hummus as an entree for yourself if you like. Or, avail yourselves of the extensive vegetarian options — once again, a hallmark of the cuisine that's done that much better here.

We could go on with the good things we ate because nothing that we tried disappointed. You know what you like, and you'll find that you like it even more when you eat it at Al Saha.

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