Ordering is intimidating and confusing if it's your first time, even though the restaurant, located at the San Antonio Center on El Camino Real, tries to help. A TV monitor flashes back and forth between a scene of Mediterranean food and instructions on how to order with three steps listed. Another monitor streams a football game on mute. A big arrow and the word "start" tells you where to begin, but if you arrive during lunch, it will be hidden behind the line of people.
Just like at Chipotle, you choose your meal first and pay last. Rows of metal containers filled with shawarma, falafel, hummus and more than 20 vegetable sides demand a quick scan if people are waiting behind you. Point to what you want, and someone scoops the various items into your tortilla wrap, rice bowl or salad bowl (between $8.50 and $10.50, depending on the protein you choose). Both the allure and downside of Sajj is that the restaurant often gives priority to quantity over flavor.
If you choose every vegetable side — which you can do free of charge, except for the guacamole (yes, there's guacamole here) — you'll have plenty of food for two meals. Yet many of those sides are bland.
Close your eyes and the pickled onions dusted with sumac could be regular raw onions, their sharpness almost fully intact. An Israeli salad of chopped tomatoes and cucumbers offers merely the flavors of its respective ingredients, rather than the melded complexity of a well-made salad. Tiny cubes of purple beets taste as if they were poured straight from the can. While the shredded cabbage provided great crunch, it tasted solely of shredded cabbage. During one visit, cauliflower stained purple from sumac was so overcooked that it went limp.
The proteins could also be better. The falafel was crunchy, but dry. Zaib Ayoub, the president of Falafel Inc., which owns Sajj, admits that it's hard to get the timing right when cooking falafel. The falafel balls are fried frequently throughout the day, but they'll dry out if they sit for too long. Sajj doesn't want to make customers wait for a falafel to be freshly fried. (Note: I would gladly wait.)
Other proteins are hit-and-miss. During one visit, the steak shawarma had a bizarre, almost liver-like consistency, though Ayoub said it doesn't contain any liver. The chicken shawarma tasted like plain grilled chicken — perfectly acceptable if not memorable. Pomegranate chicken carried a touch of sweetness, but it was chopped into such tiny pieces that it was sometimes difficult to identify as meat.
None of this is to say that the ingredients aren't good quality. According to Ayoub, the vegetables come from local farms and the meat is antibiotic- and hormone-free as well as halal. Everything is prepped in a commercial kitchen in Menlo Park and then cooked on-site at the various restaurants.
Not everything is ordinary at Sajj. The hummus is fantastic. It's thick and earthy, made in small batches by chef Louie Alhindi, who oversees all the cooking at the central kitchen.
"With most hummus, people add preservatives," said Alhindi, but Sajj keeps it simple with dried garbanzo beans, olive oil and tahini. Sajj's tzatziki, or yogurt dip, is cool, creamy and rife with crunchy cubes of cucumber. An off-white garlic dip teems with crushed garlic that feels pleasantly gravelly on the tongue. Another vegetable side, spicy peppers, may trigger a sweat response, so counter it with a bite of soft yellow rice.
Sajj's sauces also excel. A bright green cilantro mint chutney reminiscent of Indian chutney brightened everything it touched. The tahini sauce was creamy yet pourable, tasting purely of the ground sesame seeds from which it's made, while a pale pink tahini spiked with the Arabic hot sauce shatta tingled more than it burned.
Would I go back to Sajj? If I want a lot of food for not a lot of money, sure. A visit during lunchtime proves the restaurant has quite a following. Ayoub and Sajj co-owner Mashar Sakhouri must have figured out that this is what the public wants. (Sakhouri was the former food and beverage director for the Hyatt hotels, and his family owns Bay Area chain Crepevine Restaurant.)
Yet one has to wonder if Sajj — and fast-casual restaurants like it — are doing customers a disservice by dumbing down flavor in favor of convenience and low cost. Freelance writer Alissa Merksamer can be reached at email@example.com.
2580 W El Camino Real, Mountain View
Hours: Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Credit cards: yes
Noise level: low
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