We sat down with Mohamed Aboghanem, owner and head chef at Saha, located on the ground floor of San Francisco’s Hotel Carlton to get the dish on his restaurant’s Arabic-fusion cuisine and his love of healthy, flavorful food.
Joie de Vivre: How long have you been in the restaurant business?
Mohamed: I’ve been cooking all my life. I came to the Bay Area 28 years ago from Yemen and settled in the beautiful city of San Francisco. I was working at a Greek restaurant and studying economics, and the owner said he thought I had a bright future in the business. I attended Le Cordon Bleu Culinary Academy in San Francisco for a few months, but already had a ton of experience. I opened my first restaurant on Folsom Street during the Dot-com boom of the late 1990’s, and opened Saha in 2005.
JDV: How did you end up at Hotel Carlton?
Mohamed: I was introduced to Joie de Vivre and Chip Conley through a friend. We hit it off and Saha moved in as they were completing a major renovation at Hotel Carlton. The restaurant and the hotel had a joint grand opening that summer.
JDV: How would you describe your culinary style?
Mohamed: My mother was an amazing cook, and Yemen was located along major spice trade routes, so I’m not scared of spices. I use them a lot, that is my gift.
JDV: Do you have any favorite dishes on the menu? What do you recommend?
Mohamed: That is like asking which of my children is my favorite. The dishes are all unique, so if your table orders several, each one will have different spices and flavors. I like to combine interesting flavors, like a soup with garbanzos and cinnamon, and my staff thinks I’m crazy, but they usually work out beautifully.
JDV: Saha was one of the first restaurants in San Francisco to have extensive gluten-free and vegan offerings on the menu, how did that come about?
Mohamed: Living in San Francisco for 28 years has taught me that you don’t have to rely on meat and flour for flavor. I use fresh, healthy ingredients and a lot of dry spices.
JDV: Anything else we should know?
Mohamed: Saha is a bit of a hidden gem. A lot of people, including international travelers, hear about us via word of mouth, but people dine here once and become regulars. The ambiance is amazing and the menu is big — there’s something for everyone. And we serve brunch!
Bonus: When you visit Saha, find the photograph of a young Mohamed hanging on the wall of the restaurant. If you’re looking to add some more flavor to your own cooking, Mohamed makes it clear that the quality and freshness of spices are crucial. “If you really want to get the most out of them, they should be ground the same day you use them,” he says.
Some of his favorite spices to cook with are turmeric, ginger and lavender, which he loves to use in soups. He also recommends spice blends to make dishes stand out, such as ras el hanout, a common Arabic spice mix that is often used as a meat or fish rub and stirred into couscous and rice.