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Cheap Eats: Star's Kitchen & Cafe

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The Star's Kitchen & Cafe grape leaves appetizer / COOPER LEVEY-BAKER

The Star's Kitchen & Cafe grape leaves appetizer / COOPER LEVEY-BAKER

My default go-to for Middle Eastern delights in Sarasota has long been Sahara Cafe and Mediterranean Foods, a great spot near Sarasota High that caters to all your shawarma needs. So when my friend Yen told me she thought the Middle Eastern options at Star's Kitchen & Cafe were actually better than Sahara's, I was flabbergasted. So we decided to put her claim to the test, and that's how we ended up at Star's on a Wednesday afternoon.

I had never noticed the place before. Tucked inside a shopping plaza along Northgate Boulevard, the café resides in an area better known for manufacturing than cuisine, but the stream of midday customers is consistent and heavy. Spotless red linoleum covers the floor, while images of deserts and camels line the wall on the left side, opposite the counter, which is dwarfed by a colorful menu featuring photos of the various dishes.

While Yen and I are here for the Middle Eastern specialties, Star's runs the gamut. It includes old-school American favorites like reubens ($5.95) and egg-filled breakfast sandwiches ($2.50), as well as gyros ($5.95), hummus appetizers ($3.95) and falafel platters ($7.49).

The Star's Kitchen & Cafe falafel platter / COOPER LEVEY-BAKER

The Star's Kitchen & Cafe falafel platter / COOPER LEVEY-BAKER

We start with that falafel platter — a heaping helping of hummus, falafel, tabouleh, salad and pita wedges. The hummus is a delight, whipped till creamy and still carrying a strong chickpea flavor. I've become skeptical of most hummus, perhaps because it's so often adulterated with unnecessary "bonus" flavorings. Good hummus shouldn't need additives, and the Star's version doesn't.

Noted tabbouleh hater Yen munches on the parsley concoction and reports that she's enjoying it. With most tabbouleh, she says, you have to chew and chew and chew: "I feel like a cow." But not with the Star's version. "If I am a cow, I'm a happy cow."

Yen has keen taste buds, and as we dine she regales me with stories about the backyard chickens her family keeps and a "miracle fruit" that makes sour flavors taste sweet. But if you're dining by yourself, never fear. A laminated brochure will keep you occupied with all sorts of arcane trivia games. Did you know, for example, that South Dakota once called itself the Sunshine State, too? I did not.

The Star's Kitchen & Cafe chicken tawook wrap / COOPER LEVEY-BAKER

The Star's Kitchen & Cafe chicken tawook wrap / COOPER LEVEY-BAKER

The side salad is another hit with both of us. Sure it's simple, just some clumps of fresh veggies with a bright dressing, but a good salad is hard to find, and this is a good salad.

The falafel is also a winner. It lacks the super-crunchy deep-fried crust of other versions I've had, but the little nuggets deliver a rich flavor with a moister texture than many other varieties -- sometimes the vegetal goodness gets lost in all that oil.

The grape leaves, meanwhile, are a bit hit-or-miss — tasty enough, but a little crunchy and dry — and the Star's chicken tawook wrap comes down on the healthy-but-bland side. The lentil soup is delicious, with a chunky texture and a big hit of starchy flavor.

As we're wrapping up our lunch, Yen asks if I enjoyed Star's more than Sahara. I can't say it's bumped Sahara off my list of favorites, but Star's is another solid option, and I'm happy to have found some competition. Plus, hmmm... it's been a while since I've been to Sahara. Perhaps I need to go again soon. Like today. For, you know, research.

The Star's Kitchen & Cafe lentil soup / COOPER LEVEY-BAKER

The Star's Kitchen & Cafe lentil soup / COOPER LEVEY-BAKER

Star's Kitchen & Cafe
1909 Northgate Blvd., Sarasota
552-6007


This is the umpteenth entry in a weekly column dedicated to eats that are cheap. If you have an idea for a place to feature on Cheap Eats, comment below, email me at cheapeatssrq@gmail.com or hit me up on Twitter: @LeveyBaker.

Last modified: September 13, 2013
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