In 2016, Yemeni-born chef Mohamed Aboghanem moved Saha, his successful 12-year-old “Arabic fusion” restaurant, from San Francisco to Berkeley. He thought he would create his dream restaurant there but, three years later, he’s preparing to close the doors at the Berkeley space. April 28 will be Saha’s last day of service.
Aboghanem is originally from Sana’a, Yemen and, at Saha, he offers creative interpretations of Yemeni and Middle Eastern fare like you’ll find nowhere else. Saha’s dishes not only use high-quality ingredients, executed and plated in new ways, but experiment with cooking styles and flavors not commonly associated with traditional Arab cuisine. Many dishes accommodate vegan and gluten-free diets.
But, while many praised the food, the Berkeley restaurant never fulfilled its potential, Aboghanem said.
“Berkeley is rough, my friend,” Aboghanem said in a phone interview with Nosh. “People really love the food [at Saha], but it’s never made any money.”
Aboghanem said he’s ready to say goodbye to Berkeley to concentrate on his newer venture. Last year he opened a second location at the original Saha space at the Hotel Carlton in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. Saha Lounge serves tapas and small plates, and its wine list is focused on natural wines, but Aboghanem admits he has only been “halfway” involved there because he’s been so wrapped up with the Berkeley restaurant.
“I’ve been 100% for the last two and a half years [in Berkeley]. I’ve never worked so much in my whole life,” he said. “I couldn’t deal with going back and forth.”
Aboghanem said part of what made Saha Berkeley so difficult to run was the restaurant’s large size, but another big factor was that he was basically running the business himself. His ex-wife had once shared the workload, taking on the roles of sommelier and front-of-house, but Aboghanem has recently been working solo which has put limits on the business, he said.
Saha is open for dinner, starting at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday and, although it can be busy on Saturday nights, Aboghanem said the rest of the week business stopped by 8 p.m. He heard from some customers that they wanted Saha to open earlier or to offer happy hours, but he didn’t have the bandwidth for that. He did try offering lunch and brunch in the past, but neither worked out either.
“I’m just bummed and just really disappointed and hurt that I couldn’t make it there; I’m really sad about the whole thing,” Aboghanem said. He admitted to feeling burnt out, but said he’s ready “to get back on my feet.”
A new restaurant is in the works to take over the space at 2451 Shattuck Ave. a couple of months after Saha closes (Nosh will have further details in the coming days). Aboghanem has been involved with the transition. He said he chose to sell the restaurant to the new owner, even though others had higher offers because “she really fell in love with the space as much as I did; I think we’re going to be good friends.”
The restaurateur says he’ll really miss the regulars at Berkeley, especially “the older crowd,” many of whom have been customers since his first days in San Francisco. He seemed uncertain about sharing the details about Saha’s closure, but he wanted to give those East Bay diehards a final opportunity to dine at Saha on its final days in Berkeley.