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CHEAP EATS

Sarah's refines Cambridge convenience food

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.

All Cheap Eats reviews may be retrieved from Boston.com at ae.boston.com/dining Flux 1 Appleton St., Boston. 617-695-3589. It's taken a year for the brainchild of Max Ultimate Food to find its footing. Now the spare Flux is filled with some of the South End's most beautiful men, who treat the space like a cocktail party and make it a lot of fun, and the food emerging from the kitchen is simple and startlingly good. (3/18/04, S.J.)

Madina Market's Kitchen 72 Brighton Ave., Brighton. 617-787-4400. Don't let the bare-bones look and feel of this small storefront scare you away: It's what happens in the kitchen that counts. The food is aromatic and spicy, though you can decide just how spicy you want to get. (The cook will ask.) Try the chappali kebab, the Pakistani equivalent of a hamburger -- though much more interesting. The naan, or bread cooked in the clay oven, is wonderful, the tikka masalas creamy and flavorful, the tandoori chicken and shish kebabs moist. Wash it all down with a mango lassi. (3/11/04, B.E.)

Moogy's 154 Chestnut Hill Ave., Brighton. 617-254-8114. You could describe Moogy's as a sub shop. But that wouldn't capture the merry madness of this place, which has checker boards built into its tabletops, hoagies with names like Jolly Green Giant and Cow Meets Egg, and specialties like banana-cheese omelettes and grilled triple-decker peanut butter, banana and marshmallow sandwiches. All-day breakfasts are particularly good, especially the peanut butter-chip pancakes and French-toast sandwiches. There's even something for Fido: homemade bone-shaped dog treats flavored with "pea-mutt" butter. (3/4/04, S.P.)

Luciano's 561 Cambridge St., East Cambridge. 617-441-8222. Take the olive oil and garlic that infuses Portuguese food, the starchy root vegetables and beans of West Africa, and add in a little island flair, and you get the hearty but vibrant fare served at this Cape Verdean restaurant. The generous daily lunch buffet, which includes a few Brazilian dishes as well, is the way to go. If you go a la carte, don't miss the succulent grilled octopus. (2/26/04, D.T.)

Taiwan Cafe 34 Oxford St., Boston. 617-426-8181. Everyone's favorite Chinatown restaurant really delivers: You get the sense that an army of chefs must be manning the woks here because the food comes to the table so quickly, so hot, and so beautifully made. Try pan-fried dumplings, sauteed clams with basil, salt-and-pepper shrimp, home-style braised eggplant, and sauteed spinach. And much more. (2/19/04, S.J.)

Tiki Room 1 Lansdowne St., Boston. 617-351-2580. This kitschy island-themed room is built around a large, rectangular bar, tropical drinks and pu-pu platters. It's a social experience as much as anything, but the food is good, too. While watching re-runs of "Gilligan's Island," share an assortment of Asian pu-pu offerings, or a platter built around veggies, or carbs, depending on your attitude (and waistline). The room is a bit dark, but the fake tiki flames and blue and green lanterns lend a certain warmth -- as well as a 60-ounce Scorpion Bowl, meant to be shared. (2/12/04, B.E.)

Teriyaki House 32 West Broadway, South Boston. 617-269-2000. Sushi in Southie? Teriyaki House boasts a six-seat sushi bar in a serene dining room with a very Zen feel and also serves Chinese and Japanese food that's fresh, made-to-order, and loaded with crisp vegetables. Most foods are wok-cooked, grilled, or steamed, so service is very quick. At long last, healthy Asian food has come to South Boston -- from nearly greaseless vegetable tempura, to excellent coconut curry chicken that's spicy without being overbearing, to crunchy broccoli with garlic sauce. (2/5/04, S.P.)

Reef Cafe 170 Brighton Ave., Allston. 617-202-6366. This tiny storefront may look like your average falafel joint, but the fare served up on those styrofoam plates is mostly superb Lebanese home-cooking. It's all from scratch: from the lamajeun dough to the stuffed cabbage tomato sauce. Go for the wonderful soups, daily specials, and kibbi as well as the outstanding pistachio baklava and rice pudding. (1/29/04, D.T.)

Bluefin Japanese Restaurant & Bar 1815 Mass. Ave. (Porter Square), Cambridge, 617-497-8022. Amid ringing cellphones and tables of young diners, you'll find well-made Japanese specialties: sushi, which is a real deal; bowls of nourishing noodles in broth; rich broiled fish; even a sizzle platter of steak. (1/22/04, S.J.)

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