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NEIGHBORHOOD EATERY

Saba's Serves Mideast Staples, but No Politics

February 07, 1991|SHANNON SANDS

Tensions may be high between Israelis and Arabs elsewhere, but at Saba's Mediterranean Market & Deli in Tustin, it's business as usual.

The heady smell of exotic spices hangs in the air, Arabic tahini sits next to ruby-red Israeli pickled eggplant, and Jews and Arabs alike leave with plastic bags brimming with pocket bread and other goods from Egypt, Lebanon and Greece.

Owners Jack and Bonnie Saba intentionally set up the store with Arab and Jewish items next to each other to make everyone feel comfortable.

When Ramadan (the Islamic holy month of fasting) approaches, they put up signs next to apricot syrup, traditionally used to break the fast. Signs also herald Easter and Passover.

"This is Arabic, this is Arabic, this is Armenian," Bonnie Saba said, pointing at the menu to help a first-time customer choose a sandwich.

All the sandwiches are served on soft, fresh pocket bread, delivered daily to the deli. The falafel-- spicy chickpea patties with a creamy tahini sauce--is especially popular, but the tender gyro --a well-seasoned combination of lamb and beef--is also a good choice. While some larger restaurants roast gyros on a spit, at Saba's the meat is grilled for each sandwich.

The deli menu also features Greek salads, hummus and tabooleh, a tangy salad of bulgur and parsley.

Perhaps because the location is a little off the beaten path, tucked in a strip center between a dentist and a hair salon, the majority of Saba's customers are regulars. Some leisurely read the paper while eating lunch at the deli's four small tables, occasionally popping behind the blue tile counter to help themselves to a cup of coffee. Others come to buy foul medammas, lebne, phyllo, dried apricot paste, fresh bread and other Middle Eastern staples at reasonable prices.

Jack and Bonnie Saba are on a first-name basis with most of their customers and ask after children and jobs, sometimes with Jack speaking in the customer's native Arabic dialect.

While news of the Persian Gulf War dominates television sets and radios elsewhere, playing in the background most of the time at Saba's is Armenian, Arabic and Italian music. Jack Saba did turn on the radio news one recent afternoon at the request of a customer with friends and families still in his native Israel.

Many of the market's customers with Middle Eastern roots have strong opinions about the war, but they don't air them at Saba's.

"Some of them have very different opinions, but most don't discuss it in here," said Bonnie Saba. "We have people with different religions--Muslim, Jewish and Christian. We even have a couple customers who are Jewish from Iraq."

Jack Saba, born and raised in Kuwait, said the deli is not the place for politics.

"I just hope that Kuwait will be free because all my childhood is there," he said. "But I don't want to discuss war in the store because nobody likes it. . . . Sometimes the customers want to ask me what I think of the war and I always try to be--what do you call it--very general. I don't like to talk about it because I'm not a politician, so they drop it."

Saba's Mediterranean Market & Deli, 14161 Newport Ave., Unit C, Tustin. Open 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays, till 6 p.m. Saturday. (Closed Sunday.) (714) 730-7262.

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