By Frank Sabatini Jr.
During its run in the College Area, which lasted almost 10 years, Pita Pit attracted a cult following typically enjoyed by non-corporate eateries slinging food exceedingly more inventive. Now, the Canadian-founded chain, boasting more than 600 outlets worldwide, has returned to a small Linda Vista strip plaza not far from the University of San Diego.
I initially resisted visiting Pita Pit after learning that it operates much like Subway, whereby customers choose from a battery of sandwich fixings and condiments displayed behind glass panels at the order counter. My experiences at that chain often meant interacting with cheerless employees fed up with customer fickleness, not to mention biting into cold cuts of questionable quality. Hence the reasons I stopped going.
Although after conceding to raves by diehard fans of Pita Pit, it’s now my go-to joint when seeking a fast, affordable sandwich. The ingredients are surprisingly fresh and the employees are on the ball.
But there is brainwork involved when ordering your stuffed pita. Regardless of what protein you select as the main filling, such as prime rib, turkey, Black Forest ham, falafel or eggs, for example, the menu doesn’t provide recommendations for the types of veggies, cheeses and sauces that best match them. Staffers will offer suggestions if you ask. Otherwise you’re left to your own devices in figuring out the optimal flavors and textures.
The process can be daunting when faced with a barrage of fillers that include different lettuces, a few types of peppers, diced cucumbers, corn, mushrooms, cilantro and more. In addition, there are five cheeses for the picking, plus scores of sauces winking at you from labeled squeeze bottles. The fear is that a single bad decision can ruin the meal.
More impressive is the way in which the pre-baked pita disks are filled. While your choice of protein heats on a flat grill, the bread undergoes a quick steaming before an employee tears open a partial flap on one side to create a pocket.
The ingredients are then inched into the wide opening. And in some crafty way, the now-bulging pita is gently rolled and tucked over, and ends up taking the shape of a burrito. After watching the process several times, I’m still not sure I’d be able to achieve such structural integrity.
In a recent takeout order for two of us, I spent nearly 20 minutes at my desk with a menu I brought home for mapping out the ingredients and condiments of three different pitas: turkey; chicken souvlaki; and Philly cheese steak.
The latter two were relatively easy — tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, feta, and tzatziki sauce for the Mediterranean-herbed chicken — and grilled green peppers, onions and mushrooms for the steak, plus Provolone. I passed on a sauce since classic cheese steaks never come with one.
Both were satisfying, although the steak pita could have withstood an additional slice of cheese (99 cents extra) for adding proper creaminess.
The pita filled with thick-sliced turkey chopped on the grill was the winner. It left me proud of my ingredient choices: roasted red peppers, shredded iceberg lettuce, pepper jack cheese and jalapeno ranch. All combined, it struck appealing balances between sweet and spicy, supple and crunchy.
In earlier visits, both the spicy black bean and Buffalo chicken pitas were standouts. For the black bean, which starts off as a loose patty on the grill, I went with an employee’s suggestion of adding banana peppers, fresh spinach, cilantro and ancho chipotle sauce. Considering the beans are a little spicy on their own, the outcome was feisty but without sending me in a sweat to the soda fountain.
When trying the Buffalo chicken, I chose fillers that best resembled components found on an actual plate of wings served authentically with celery and blue cheese dressing. Neither is available here, so I opted for diced cucumbers as a substitute for celery, and feta and tzatziki to replace the tang of blue cheese.
The combination was on point, jiving superbly to the chopped breast meat, which receives by default a few squirts of wing sauce as it grills.
Other pita options include gyros that originate from an off-site spit, plus tuna, chicken Caesar, hummus, and ham and eggs. The meatiest choice is the Dagwood, which combines ham, turkey and prime rib.
Soft, thin and airy, it remains handily intact from end to end, assuming you apply some restraint when choosing your fillings. But for most of us, that isn’t so easy when hovering over a cornucopia of colorful possibilities.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.