Thursday, October 27, 2011

Good Chow #4: Fixing at the Pita Inn

by Ilana Shabanov

We started making the Sunday pilgrimage for falafel when I was around 5, piling into my grandfather’s Chrysler LeBaron and heading out to the North Side to get our fix.  Mind you, this was decades before hummus was available by the bucket at your local grocery store. My grandparents and my father were from Israel, so the need for hummus and falafel was in our blood, something old and familiar. Put it in a pita, we would eat it.  However, years later, after my grandparents and father passed away, I fell into a falafel wasteland - surviving an eternity without the crisp yet tender chickpea fritters and the mouth-coating bliss of truly superlative hummus. I had tried other places, but they never came close to replicating the falafel of my childhood.  It was always either over-cooked or mealy and soggy. I had started to give up altogether. But this is not a sad story.

Over a decade ago, I was saved.  True story.  While working at a catering company in Morton Grove (I have seen things, oh yes I have...), my husband, who was a chef there, came home one day exclaiming “I just had falafel for the first time.  Damn, it’s good.  You’re people know what’s up.”  My eyes widened, my pulse quickened and I grabbed him by the collar and said “You will take me there.”  And so he did.  We’ve been going to Pita Inn religiously since.

There are four Pita Inn locations, but we usually go to the one on Dempster, in Skokie. We will make the drive from the city on a Sunday without a second thought. Yes, it can get busy there, but I don’t care because I’m in my happy place.  This restaurant is not fancy, though clean and friendly and that is enough for me.  The few times I’ve gone to a white tablecloth establishment for Middle Eastern food, I couldn’t see the point.  When you get to Pita Inn, you simply walk up to the counter and order, then you find a table, sit down, and wait for them to call your number.  We usually end up with two red cafeteria trays of food to haul back. It borders on shameful.  There is a nap required when we get home.  The bonus of going to the Dempster location of Pita Inn is, not only is it the original, it is located right next door to their store and bakery.  Oh yes, you can shop afterwards.  At Pita Inn Market and Bakery, you can stock up on large canisters of zaatar seasoning, pomegranate syrup, marinated eggplant, and my childhood favorite halvah, a kind of candy made from ground sesame seeds that has enough fat and calories in one bite to set you back a good month. Go for the kind marbled with chocolate.  So delicious.     

First of all, the falafel at Pita Inn is smack-a-kitten good.  It is crisp on the outside and flecked with sesame seeds, while the inside is bright green and fluffy.  It’s like I’m five-years-old again. My personal favorite is the Gourmet Falafel sandwich, which has the addition of fried potato slices and a brightly flavored relish with the beloved pink pickled turnips, cucumbers and tomatoes. Make sure and grab a couple of the plastic dishes of tahini and harissa to bring back to your table, because they are a necessary condiment. Warning:  check the harissa first before pouring it on everything.  Some days it is a nice warm heat, some days it is made of hellfire.  Just a heads-up. 

Their hummus is - and I will defend this in a street fight - the best I’ve had anywhere. Period.  It is velvety smooth and creamy and it has the perfect balance of garlic, tahini and lemon.  I think almost every other place kills their hummus with cumin and then the whole thing just tastes like smokey armpit dip to me.  Pita Inn’s hummus is very possibly made with magic. It comes spread on a plate and drizzled with thick green olive oil and spices and served with their homemade, warm pita bread. Other favorites include their chicken and beef shawarma, which is pieces of marinated meat layered and cooked on a spit, much like gyros, and kifta kebab, which is ground beef or lamb formed on a skewer and cooked on a grill.  My only critique is of their lentil soup and yellow rice which could use a slightly heavier hand in the seasoning department.  Otherwise, it’s all good. Even better, their prices.  Less than twenty dollars gets you a feast, and if you go during the week they have combination lunch plates for $4.95. A habit is always better when it is cheap.  I don’t think the husband and I go for more than a month without making the trip to Skokie to get our fix.  If we wait too long, we start getting itchy.

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