One of the problems in the restaurant business is a saturated market, simply explained as just too many outlets for the number of customers. A little less than a year ago, Nations Restaurant News editorialized about the problem regarding fast food or fixed menu establishments. It doesn't take more than a ride down Salt Lake's Fourth South to understand the situation with large franchises.

Because I am partial to ethnic food and eateries that have less exposure, I worry about a saturated market affecting local Mexican, Chinese, Japanese and Greek restaurants. There might be more ethnic restaurants than available and/or interested diners.Those were some of my thoughts as I pulled in front of Robert's Deli and Market, located in a little grocery store on Ninth South in a quiet residential neighborhood. Since the specialty of Robert's is Middle Eastern cuisine, I wondered how this place would compare and possibly compete with other favorites of ours, like Cedars of Lebanon and the Cafe Mediterranean, which also highlight this style of cooking.

I am happy to say that there is a distinctiveness and personality about Robert's that is as unique and pleasing as its cuisine. While Cedars, operated by Robert's younger brother, Rafael, has more of a cabaret feel to it, and Cafe Mediterranean impresses us with its refined quality, Robert's reflects an earthy, homespun approach to Middle East food.

We got a taste of Robert's folksiness upon entering. Customers place their orders over a counter in the rear, directly to the open kitchen where Robert and his wife are either preparing or serving colorful and aromatic dishes like falafel, homous and baba ghanouch. The latter dishes, one made from ground chick peas and the other prepared with roasted egg plant, were redolent with garlic. They both were also a bit more coarsely ground than other versions of these traditional items; however this did not detract from their special flavor and appeal.

Other dishes we sampled also had a rich, robust flavor. Beurek, a filo pastry layer with feta and cottage cheese and spinach, was a flavorful attraction, as were the stuffed grape leaves. The tabboule, described on the menu with characteristic Middle Eastern hyperbole as "the most refreshing salad in the world," has more mint and parsley than we are accustomed to mixed with the cracked wheat. But, as in the case of the other dishes, the texture only added to the pleasure of eating.

Even a recommended beverage, tamarind soda with a sprinkling of shelled pine nuts, lent a special zip to the meal.

In addition to the above dishes we tried on the Middle Eastern Combination Plate ($3.99), the deli counter tempts one with some other items. The kibbi, cracked wheat with seasoned beef (99 cents), as well as the gyro ($2.25), bathed in a pungent yogurt sauce, and the fataer (75 cents), a pocket of dough filled with a lemony blend of spinach and pine nuts, were just a few more of the specialties that pleased our palates.

Robert's Deli also features a full line of submarine sandwiches, priced from $1.99 to $3.49, including mortadela, turkey, pastrami, roast beef and sujuk or Armenian sausage. Pastries like croissants, jumbo cinnamon rolls as well as homemade baklava and custard in a shredded wheat shell and sweetened with a syrup accented by rose water, round out the tempting bill of fare.

Robert's Deli and Market offers Salt Lakers who enjoy Middle Eastern food an informal and quaint alternative to some of the area's other restaurants with similar cuisine. I just hope that there are enough customers to keep all of them in business, all the while nourishing local diners with their festive and healthful preparations.

Rating: ***1/2

Robert's Deli and Market, 1071 E. Ninth South, 355-8141. Open Monday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Special grocery items; home delivery and catering services available. Checks with guarantee cards accepted.