Sababa is one part restaurant, one part Middle Eastern grocer, located on the north side of Steeles east of Bathurst. It's been a business since 1987, and I've certainly been a regular customer since then.
I remember the restaurant getting a makeover at some point, but still it looks dated. The furnishings aren't especially comfortable and the dining room is carpeted, for god sakes (usually this would be an immediate deal-breaker for me) but, with that said, please don't let this dissuade you from eating here - it is well worth your while.
The restaurant comes alive in the evenings when large parties pack into the 120-seat dining room, but during the day you'll find only the odd table occupied. Most people just hit the walk-up counter in the back of the retail side for incredibly cheap pita pockets stuffed with shawarma ($5.95), falafel balls ($3.75), and my personal favourite, fried eggplant ($3.95).
The menu also lists cold dips, salads, hot appetizers, grilled meats and seafoods, and fried specialties. Turkish salad, the Israeli name for matbucha, is another favourite. It's a sharp garlicky tomato paste dip, best paired with labneh to mellow it out, or, house-made hummus sweetened with roasted red peppers.
The baba ganoush (with mayo or taheena) here is the standard I hold all other eggplant dips to. I've tried to replicated it at home and I've tried to search out something comparable downtown without success. Here, it's creamy, garlicky and a little chunky.
Falafels ($5) are served with thick hummus with a pool of taheena at its centre. They're petite balls, so the ratio of crispy fried exterior to light fluffy interior is on point.
The shawarma ($15), a flavourful pile of chopped chicken bits, is served alongside saffron-scented rice. Everything should be shared, eaten with hands using torn pita to swipe up the dips and pinch shawarma and falafels into folds.
Should you choose to sit in the dining room, it is still a requisite part of any visit to hit the store on the way out. Consider it a souvenir shop, if you will. Essential items to stock up on are: the house-made dips, salads, halva, six-packs of Malt Star beer (non-alcoholic, BTW), and most importantly, the puffy, chewy pita.
Made in-house daily, the pita bakes on a conveyor belt and drops off the line as an inflated balloon. They're packaged by the half dozen in plastic bags which will fog up in the mornings as they're still steaming.
Credit my passion to sentimental ties, but it's not every day I can say I've been patronizing a restaurant for 25 or more years. With the recent rise of Middle Eastern eateries popping up across the city, I personally feel that this place was long overdue for some recognition.
Photos by Jesse Milns