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Baked bliss: Need-a-Pita takes Mediterranean staple to another level

Need-A-Pita’s chicken shawarma platter consists of marinated chicken, rice, hummus and a salad. (Richard S. Dargan/For The Journal)

Wandering into Need-A-Pita, a new restaurant on Menaul near San Mateo, I was drawn to the bakery case and the intriguing assortment of savory pies and sweet desserts displayed there. A shelf behind the counter held a dwindling supply of the restaurant’s namesake pita.

Not to worry, owner Alex Abweh said. Even though a customer had just left with 20 bags, Abweh assured me his wife, Neda, was making more.

It’s a good thing, because the pita turned out by Neda Abweh is a revelation. Pillowy soft and chewy, it’s a different species from the tough, flattened discs that turn up at so many restaurants and supermarkets.

Alex Abweh opened Need-A-Pita a couple of months ago as a showcase for his wife’s baking skills, previously on display at Cafe Istanbul on Wyoming.

The small lunchtime spot, in a strip mall just west of San Mateo, is a welcoming, sun-filled space with a few tables covered in thin plastic sheets. Alex Abweh is a doting presence in the dining room. He can tell you how all the Middle Eastern specialties are prepared and why his wife’s versions are the best in town. Sure, Abweh is biased, but based on a recent lunch, he’s not exaggerating.

You can eat well and cheaply at Need-A-Pita just on appetizers and sides, starting with an outstanding version of falafel ($1.10 for three) that is a testament to the value of preparation. Neda Abweh makes these the hard way, giving dried chickpeas a good, long soak before grinding them with fresh herbs. The work pays off in small, russet brown patties with a crispy exterior and a moist interior green with cilantro and parsley. The three pieces, served with a tzatziki sauce of sour cream and cucumber, are a great opening act, all for the price of a gas station hot dog.

Sumac chicken, foreground, and spinach pie showcase Need-A-Pita chef Neda Abweh’s gift for preparing baked goods. (Richard S. Dargan/For The Journal)

Advertised on the menu as the house specialty, the sumac chicken ($1.95) arrives encased in what vaguely resembles a crescent roll. The chicken inside is diced and seasoned with sumac, a Middle Eastern spice whose dark red color makes the filling look almost purple. The spice imparts an intense, vinegary flavor that’s mollified by the soft, slightly browned crust.

Sumac also makes an appearance in Need-A-Pita’s excellent spinach pies ($1.95), providing tanginess that helps balance the mineral-like flavor of the chopped spinach. The sumac, along with some chile-based heat, makes what’s often a drab and dull filling into a flavor-packed mixture. I’d wager that even people who don’t like spinach would enjoy these.

Need-A-Pita doesn’t deploy a vertical rotisserie for its version of the Middle Eastern staple shawarma; instead, marinated beef and chicken are cooked on a grill and served in sandwiches or as part of a platter.

In the beef shawarma sandwich ($9.25), strips of lean sirloin get a flavor boost from a lemon-based marinade. The pita, with its slightly crisp shell, makes the perfect vessel to contain the beef, onions and peppers. The sandwich is well-executed, as are the thick-cut fries that accompany it.

The chicken shawarma platter ($10.95) consists of thin strips of mostly white meat that offer the same smoky flavor and citrusy sharpness of the beef. The pita served on the side goes to good use scooping up the nutty, fluffy hummus.

Need A Pita serves desserts and drinks, including an iced mint tea ($1.95) that pairs particularly well with the spicy food. A board by the door advertises daily specials like chile chicken shawarma.

You’ll leave Need-A-Pita with great appreciation for the work of Neda Abweh, the hospitality of her husband, Alex, and a desire to keep returning until you’ve tried everything on the menu.


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