Slim Jims and Doritos don't usually fill my thoughts when I bite into a fresh mozzarella and prosciutto sandwich. But as I sat at Sarah's Cafe savoring the roasted red peppers layered on my nicely chewy baguette sandwich, these were the things that danced in my head. You see, of all places, Sarah's Cafe -- an oasis of fresh, very cheap, quasi-gourmet meals -- is in the back of a convenience store, Sarah's Market. Depending on which way you face when you sit at the cherry-tone wood tables, the decor is either casual deli-chic or early 21st-century snack food -- most tables have a grand view of the Hostess cakes display.
But for a quick, quality, home-style meal (as in your home, not your Grandma's), the corner store thing actually works. Customers grab drinks from the store's fridges, anything from soda to high-end juices. Then they place and pick up their orders at the walk-up counter.
Back when this place was Sage's, all you could get were basic deli sandwiches. But in 2002 a new owner changed the name to Sarah's, updated the sandwiches, and added homemade soups, pasta dishes, and grilled entrees. Last year, Raj Patel bought Sarah's, kept the cook (Hakim Lamhaf), and added some fare of his own.
Patel says his goal is "good food at a reasonable price," and we believe him. The chef's specialty entrees are a steal. They range from $7.25 to $8.50, and if you order two, they knock a dollar off the price of each dish.
Chicken and vegetables ($7.99) was a huge plate of vegetables skillfully sauteed to the peak of their color with strips of grilled chicken in an Italian-herb marinade -- nothing fancy, just super fresh and well prepared with a generous, beautiful mesclun salad on the side. Jamaican chicken ($7.99) recasts this same dish with tasty jerk seasoning and a dome of golden rice subbing for the salad.
Besides no-frills pasta dishes, like the subtle, satisfying penne Romanoff in a basil-vodka cream sauce ($7.25) and the very popular linguini carbonara ($7.99) rich with bacon, parmesan, and cream, the specialties include two meat-and-potatoes dishes.
Peppercorn steak was served with upscale flair on a platter with salad and big steak fries ($8.50). It was chewy, but at $7.50 with the discount and slathered with an excellent light cream sauce jumping with perky green peppercorns, we didn't mind. Grilled salmon with salad and fries ($8.50) was also overcooked, but nicely sauced with a light lemon-butter cream. Daily sandwich and soup specials are a good bet, but they can run out. I was glad to get the last mozzarella-prosciutto baguette ($6.99) special one evening. It was as good as this classic gets. A creamy potato soup ($2.99/$3.99) special was delicate, warming and not too thick.
Patel, who is originally from Gujarat state in India, likes to offer Indian specials like chicken curry or, our favorite, the samosa wrap ($6.99). You won't find this blasphemy on the streets of India, but this tortilla wrap filled with cool lettuce and packed around a steamy cumin-spiced potato pastry is soul-soothingly good.
And the menu just goes on. Of the many sandwiches, an Italianized croque monsieur ($6.50) stood out. Broad, French-style bread seasoned with olive oil and oregano brought out the flavor in layers of thin-sliced ham and melted mozzarella. The Indian feast ($6.50), however, sounded exotic but was no more than a basic turkey-and-cheese wrap with caramelized onions.
Sarah's lentil soup ($2.50/$3.50), named for the previous owner's daughter, is so good Patel kept the recipe. It's a light, golden brew of yellow lentils and chickpeas with just enough cilantro and celery to wake it up. Fans of fresh mozzarella will enjoy the buffalo salad ($5.99), which tops impeccable field greens with an uncut, juicy mozzarella ball and balsamic dressing (order bread on the side to make a meal of it).
Breakfast fared well, too. Pancakes ($4.99) were light and fluffy, and the morning-standard egg sandwich ($3.50) was just right with thick-sliced bacon on a toasty English muffin.
For dessert, you're free to roam the store and bring what you like back to your table (Twinkies, ice cream sandwiches, toothpaste, it's all up to you). Or you can pair espresso drinks and teas with a changing array of cakes, pastries, or ice cream from the deli counter. Without impressing, they all do the trick, especially with a cup of Sarah's steamed masala chai ($2.75) on the side.