Downtown Gainesville is experiencing a rebirth of sorts recently, with a number of really quality restaurants and bars opening up. One of these restaurants is tucked inside the Sun Center, just a few doors down from what my dear friend, Tom Miller, refers to as “The Center of the Universe” (Maude’s Café). The restaurant I’m referring to is Sababa. Yes, the same Sababa that was once located in the Gainesville Dojo building, and more recently inside the UF Hillel. In December of 2014, they packed up shop and began their move into their current location. Now opened for a bit over three months, this little restaurant is serving up some seriously good Israeli cuisine.
I don’t know why it took me so long to pay them a visit, but I’m really happy that I did. The owners, Riley and Yael, are a super friendly young couple who put a lot of love into their food. Both of them work the counter, kitchen, and run food out to tables in the restaurant with much of the recipes coming from Yael’s mother. Most importantly, you can tell they love what they do and are very good at it. They’re not shoving some cringe-worthy “we’re living our dream” sob-story in your face like some places do, you can just tell by the smiles on their faces and the food they put out.
The restaurant is small, with just a handful of tables against a long bench seat and a couple two-top otherwise in a converted former dance studio. But there is seating outside as well. The menu is relatively small with a handful of appetizers, six different entrees, pita sandwiches, and a few desserts. You’ll find items like Bourekas ($1.99 each - flakey filo dough pastry with potato, mushrooms, or spinach filling), baked-to-order Mellawach ($5.99 - flakey filo dough served with fresh tomato puree or honey), and Couscous.
For entrees, your choice of protein can be ordered as a plate with choice of side, pita & hummus, and a housemade Israeli salad or in the form of a pita sandwich. Plates range from $9.99 to $12.99 and sandwiches range from $7.99 to $8.99. There’s Falafel, Chicken or Vegan Shawarma, Chicken or Vegan Schnitzel, and Moroccan Fish (salmon baked in tomato sauce with peppers, onions, and cilantro). I had the opportunity to try both the Chicken Shawarma and the Falafel Pita Sandwich, both of which were divine. But I’m also a huge sucker for a good Tahini sauce, and theirs is pretty darn fantastic. If you do visit, make sure you get a can of sweet delicious fruit nectar imported straight from Israel, it’s available in mango or strawberry banana.
For dessert, there’s of course, Baklava, and it’s a very good Baklava at that. But you’ll also find Rugelach (a Jewish crescent roll), Babka (a yeast bread with chocolate), and Bamba (peanut butter corn puffs). On Sundays, they even serve brunch with favorites like Bagel & Lox, Challah French Toast, a Babka French Toast, and Shakshuka (eggs poached in homemade tomato sauce served with pita and salad). Get some Turkish Coffee, which is prepared with unfiltered finely ground beans and cardamom, with your pastry and you’ve got a nice little snack.
Much of the menu is vegetarian and/or vegan friendly, so it’s a wonderful option even if you are not of the meat-eating persuasion. If you haven’t already inferred by now, they are indeed Kosher. Sababa is located at 101 SE 2nd Place Suite 107 in the Sun Center, on the same strip as Maude’s Café. They are open from 11 AM to 9 PM from Tuesdays through Saturdays, 8 AM to 4 PM on Sundays, and closed on Mondays. This is a place that embodies a lot of what I love in a restaurant. They keep it simple, are not trying to reinvent the wheel, and do it because they want to share their food, not pad their wallets. It will definitely be a restaurant that I add to my regular downtown rotation!