Pita Jungle masters the art of survival in the LOCAL restaurant world
By Erica Wayne 10/02/2013
A story that appeared in the Arizona Republic in 1994 calls Pita Jungle “a one-restaurant social intersection of black-turtleneck-clad, too-chic-pour-vous coed, Volvo with kid-seat driving yuppies and nature girls and boys just back from a water-reclaiming hike. And probably even some Republicans.”
Dining at the 20-restaurtant chain’s local site, an Old Pasadena fixture for the past two-plus years, one can see that the description could have been written right here. A huge space filled with tables filled with customers, with high open-ducted ceilings, brick walls punctuated by vertical wood-strip panels, wood floors and bright, interesting abstracts, Pita Jungle is definitely cool. There’s jazz background music, perhaps a bit too high, but, surprisingly, conversational noise is somewhat muted by the ample space between tables.
As for the food, I know I’m risking the condescension of many readers whenever I praise chain restaurants. But Emerson’s opinion that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” doesn’t apply to cooking. And there’s something to be said for being able to count on a dish you liked once being available again the next time you visit. At Pita Jungle, like other chains we frequent, we know the burger, salad, sandwich, ribs, soup we ordered last month will still be the same.
That’s not to say everything at Pita Jungle is necessarily up to “gourmet” standards. Their taboule, for example, is good but not great. It could stand a bit more burghul, some chopped mint, cucumber and green instead of white onion to make the recipe more traditional (and better). Ditto for ratatouille ($4.89 as a side), too sweet and a little undercooked for my taste, but OK in small quantities.
I also find their falafel a little too salty, although the fried croquettes are light (almost fluffy), crisp and nearly greaseless. But then, I keep ordering them as part of Pita Jungle’s Mediterranean Antipasto Platter ($12.75) or as a salad topping ($8.69) instead of the traditional street snack prep, wrapped in a pita with cilantro, greens, chopped tomato, onions, pickles and tahini ($6.99) all of which would mitigate the salt.
That antipasto plate, by the way, is a real bargain if you like hummus, baba ganoosh, tzatziki, feta cheese and dolmades as much as I do. Ordered separately, small portions of the first three will run you almost $18. Six plump stuffed (and excellent) grape leaves cost $6.49 by themselves. The platter includes two, which is more than enough, given the huge spoonfuls of all three dips, plus taboule and ratatouille, two falafels, cheese, tomato wedge, three kalamata olives and a pair of Frisbee-size pitas.
Most of Pita Jungle’s menu is crammed with an overwhelming number of starters, hot pitas, cold pitas, pita wraps, salads (with and without chicken, salmon and seared yellow fin), pizza on pita or lavosh, and healthy (read vegan or fish) “burgers” with sides of garlic new potatoes instead of fries. The point of the menu, as the subtitle to the restaurant’s name plainly states, is “the art of eating healthy.” You won’t find beef, be it natural, free-range, grass-fed or even organic; and tofu can be substituted in all chicken and fish dishes.
Pita Jungle serves a number of “featured specials” which seem to be permanent. Last time we were in, we tried chicken tikka masala ($11.49) in a mild coconut curry sauce, served over brown rice, topped prettily with a small upright “grove” of fresh pea sprouts and garnished with a sprinkle of chili powder around the bowl’s rim. The sauce had more than a hint of lime — kind of odd for an Indian curry. But it was certainly tasty and, like almost everything Pita Jungle serves, enough to take home for another meal.
One dish that never makes it back to our home is the caramelized cauliflower with tahini (only $4.89 for a soup bowl-sized portion of the most luscious, addictive vegetable I can remember tasting recently). The florettes are browned to golden perfection in olive oil, onion and sesame paste, with a smattering of sautéed pine nuts and crisped onion strings perched on top. This, I cannot emphasize enough, is a must-try item!
Despite Pita Jungle’s goal of helping us to eat healthy, they do have a full bar and serve desserts destined to undermine that effort. Carrot cake and turtle cheesecake are $5.49 apiece and, according to the Web site’s nutrition chart, are 610 and 860 calories, respectively. Even the rice pudding ($4.99) packs 370 calories. Fortunately, the walnut baklawa ($3.99) is uncharted, so I wouldn’t have to feel guilty eating it if I ever had room.
Pita Jungle’s name seems odd given the general bent of its cuisine. (With all their Middle Eastern and Mediterranean offerings, I’d be inclined to call it Pita Desert or — probably more inviting — Pita Oasis.) But the restaurant business is truly a jungle, and this chain has definitely mastered the art of survival in the wild.
43 E. Colorado Blvd.,
Full bar/Major cards