“I’m still a stranger to some people here, but I don’t see myself as a stranger,” said Miriam Salah, owner of Sahara Grill and Cafe. “I see myself as from Richmond, Virginia.”
With family and roots in North Sudan, the culture Salah came from has many contrasts to the Commonwealth — but living in Richmond since 1998, the entrepreneur aims to show Americans the world through her food. Salah hopes her presence in Jackson Ward will invite customers to experience new tastes.
“I’ve lived here for so long, I’ve witnessed all these changes in downtown Richmond,” she said. “I just came to Jackson Ward last year, but I came at the right time, I think the opportunity is here. We have a lot of young people who know better than our old people, Richmond is getting more multicultural. ”
Even with 19 years in Richmond, Salah has deeper roots around the state. She got her MBA from Howard University in Washington, D.C. before opening her restaurant here with her husband.
Sahara Grill and Cafe had its debut as Al Kawthar near VCU’s Monroe Park campus. Salah’s recipes were loved by many for about four years while Al Kawthar was open at 1517 W. Broad St., before moving to the new rebranded location last year, which opened last year at 114 East Clay St.
“Al Kawthar has more to do with Middle Eastern and Muslim cultures, but a lot of my American fellows didn’t know how to pronounce the name correctly,” Salah said. “I decided to change the name to Sahara Grill and Cafe because it reflects the food we’re doing, and people know it.”
In Jackson Ward, the new spot gave them space for a full restaurant dining room and a hookah lounge in the back. Salah plans to cover all of the Saharan and sub-Saharan nations with her menu, which already includes dishes across the area from Morocco, Yemen, Sudan and Egypt.
“Our chefs are from Egypt, Yemen, Iraq, Morocco and Saudi Arabia,” Salah said. “I have a sister from Uganda. She learned how to make all the food here, and now she does it better than I do!”
Salah sees much of her business from international VCU students and Richmond’s Arab communities. As VCU attracts more Middle Eastern students to her business, she wants to cater her business to those kids while showing Americans what she has to offer.
“I’m here, I’m trying to make it,” she said. “There are some challenges here, we are at the heart of the black community in Jackson Ward and it’s hard to build exotic foods and ideas. I have some market niche to support me with VCU and the people here in Richmond.”
Salah noted her business is about 25 percent VCU students, 25 percent Arab communities, and 25 percent white Americans. The other 25 percent, she says, are Muslim people other than Arabs and often people travelling through the country who look for Halal food along their trips.
“Americans are very friendly, very open-minded and open to strangers unlike any other nationality,” she said. “I travel a lot, I’ve never seen something like this. And I share this with so many people and they agree, they know the difference between nations. American nations have a very specific and very friendly people.”
The business draws many Americans who have travelled abroad, Salah said. She notices that many travelers appreciate the food and know it as a healthy option. Their Halal food is created from the very beginning, and they don’t believe in pre-processed food that is common in the American industry.
Halal refers to the standards for Muslim food, and is prepared according to codes laid out by Muslim law. Halal criteria are comparable to those of Jewish kosher food (though still with notable differences), and Salah has noticed the two cultures supporting each other.
“Even though they fight, they really appreciate each other,” she said. “I think the Jewish and Muslim people have a lot in common culture-wise. We look for their places, they look for our places. We eat the same things and we come together.”
Catching up with Salah, the RVA Mag team was treated to a dish with Halal lamb cut fresh and marinated overnight in cinnamon and other spices. The meat is then cooked for three hours while the basmati rice is cooked from scratch: an Indian rice that’s fluffy and long, then garnished. Sahara Grill and Cafe makes everything homemade, even their lentil soup and cucumber sauce which combines garlic and mint for a surprisingly great taste.
“Food is cultural, food is like a drug,” she said. “The more you eat of a certain kind, the more you want it.”
For people with all different tastes, Salah encourages curious customers to come check out her menu and its variety.
“I’m in Jackson Ward, and I’m trying to sell Halal food,” she said. “But a lot of the people here don’t know hummus or falafel, they don’t want it…so this is a challenge. I’m trying to get the word out, I’m trying to get people to taste it and read about it.”
In the meantime, Salah is just glad to see the friendly faces of her community and share her craft. She brings pieces from American culture into her work and leans on her family for support, with history in Sudan where people share everything they have.
“Sudan has the good things and the bad things,” she said. “The food is a good thing, the people are the good things, how family comes together. But we lack freedom there, we don’t have freedom to express ourselves. I think I’m one of those lucky ones that made my way here to the United States of America, and I’m living my dream here.”
Salah’s roots have impacted her life in the States deeply, but she is always enthusiastic to share the best pieces from her origins with the community in Richmond.
“Wherever you go, you interact, and I believe in blending,” she said. “We take and we give. I think we’re taking from the American culture and we’re giving back as well.”