S ababa falafel. It’s so much fun to say out loud. Try it with me: SA-BA-BA FA-LA-FEL. Like Middle Eastern baby talk, right? Actually, it’s Hebrew for “cool, great, all right, no problem.”
Now, here’s something else you must try: the food at Sababa, a new eatery on Whitney Avenue brought to you by the talented and charming Chef Mickey Josephs, of Mickey’s in Hamden. Self-serve, with just a few tables and a brisk to-go business, Sababa is home to fresh falafels, chicken shawarma and BLT (beef, lamb and turkey) shawarma. These basics are served either on a pita or a platter, and offered with a mind-bending array of house-made toppings, salads and sauces. Some are traditional—hummus, baba ghanoush, tahini, staples of Mickey’s native Israel—while others are original creations by the multicultural chef. Sweet Potato and Mushroom Salad with crimini, shiitake, sesame oil, cilantro, scallions and barrel-aged white vinegar… Black Bean & Roasted Corn Salad (“Definitely not native to Israel,” Mickey says with a grin)… Red Cabbage Salad… these offerings reflect Mickey’s penchant, made popular at his white tablecloth restaurant, for beautifully blending global flavors, techniques and ingredients.
What’s more, mix-master Mickey steps far beyond Middle Eastern boundaries at Sababa by offering sides and sauces like Chimichurri (Argentina), Pickled Mango (India) and Fried Long Hot Peppers (Italy). And why not? “Shawarma and falafel is all over the place,” exclaims Mickey. “Right now it’s the fastest-growing fast food in Germany—you see the machines everywhere.”
The machines he’s referring to are the vertical rotisseries also used in Turkish and Greek cookery known simply as “shawarma machines.” The chef bought his first one three years ago, and every so often he would thrill his bar patrons at Mickey’s by whipping up a fresh batch of shawarma on pita. “People love it, they’d all say, ‘You’ve got to put this on the menu!’ But I couldn’t do it at Mickey’s—I couldn’t do it out in the open. You need to see the machine and smell the aroma, or there’s no point to it.”
Thus, a dream started to take shape: to open a casual eatery offering the kinds of foods that he grew up on. “Always at home there were ten to twelve small dishes on the table,” Mickey explains. “That’s how we eat—a bite of this, a bite of that.”
Sababa opened in late February in a former taco shop, but it wasn’t until last week that a group of friends and co-workers, including a vegetarian and a hard-core carnist, took a chance on Sababa’s fare. Having grown up on Mamoun’s falafel, all of us felt we knew what to expect, more or less. So, four of us ordered three platters to share. And what we got exceeded all of our expectations.
First, there was the sheer volume of food—an astonishing value. The Combo Platter included five ping pong-sized falafel balls, plus tahini (excellent), hot sauce (ditto) and a choice of three salads – all for $6.50. The Chicken Shawarma Platter, at $8, and the BLT Shawarma Platter, $9, could have been dinner for two. Each was served with a pilaf of the day, chopped Israeli salad (so bright, so fresh!), and the aforementioned sauces. What’s more, the pita—choice of whole wheat or white, served warm—was the best I’ve ever had. I later learned that the pita is par-baked at the largest bakery in Israel, then finished off every morning in the ovens of Sababa.
My crew of tasters were ecstatic, and I have the notes to prove it. “I always thought I didn’t like baba ganoush,” wrote vegetarian Rose. “This tasted like fire-roasted eggplant, with a beautiful texture.” She also noted that the falafels were not only well-seasoned but green on the inside—a sign that they were made that day. Cara was wowed by the fried cauliflower and that divine sweet potato salad, and loved the flavors of vinegar and cayenne in the hot sauce. Hayward, a.k.a. “Mr. Meat,” declared the food “manly,” and wrote, “they gave enough meat and it’s tasty.”
Our order, which was phoned in, was ready in less than ten minutes, and arrived well packed—the hot food was hot, and the cold food was cold. What’s more, the flavors and the textures remained true much longer than we asked them to. Rose later confessed that, hours after we’d had our fill, she “stuffed everything into a pita and every single thing stood up, flavor after flavor.” (Don’t judge her; some leftovers cannot be resisted.)
Chef Mickey is well aware that his food is a fantastic bargain. “I’ll give people whatever they want, whatever fits on the plate,” he says. “Once they’ve tried everything, they’ll find their favorites, they’ll know exactly what they want. There are no dead horses on this menu—everything moves. Each one of the salads is finding its soul mate.”
At present, Sababa has limited hours, and caters to a lunch crowd (Mondays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.). However, Mickey has plans to expand into a neighboring space and, “once everything’s up and running,” to extend Sababa’s hours until 8 p.m.
Day or night, I know at least four fans who plan to make Sababa a weekly routine.
21 Whitney Avenue, New Haven (map)
Written & photographed by Todd Lyon.