Need-A-Pita – Albuquerque, New Mexico
If anniversary gifts are seen as a barometer for the health of a relationship, it’s a wonder any marriage involving men survives. Dozens of bad gift compilations across the internet would have you believe those of us with the XY-chromosome deficiency…er, pairing are notoriously bad gift givers. Instead of lavishing our spouses with romantic gifts indicative of our love, we give them practical things…such as universal remote controls, home brewing kits or outdoor pizza ovens we ourselves would like. Or we give them exercise equipment, not realizing the connotation might not be “I care,” but “you’re fat.” Then there are some of us who think the anniversary symbol for every year is plastic…as in a gift card. Nothing says “after all these years, I don’t really know you” like giving your spouse a gift card.
We can all learn from the example of Alex Abweh. For his 25th wedding anniversary, Alex drove his wife Neda to the space he had been remodeling for weeks in preparation of fulfilling her lifelong dream of opening a restaurant. Neda, Alex told us, is a fabulous cook. He raved about everything she prepares, lavishing special praise upon the pita she bakes. “It’s unlike any pita in town,” he explained as “it’s made the way it’s been made for centuries.” Indeed, that pita is fabulous–at least on par with the pita at Alqud’s Mediterranean Grill, maybe better. Alex proudly boasted that she now bakes over a thousand pitas a day for other restaurants as well as for dine-in and take-out customers. Among the patrons who pick up pita in mass quantities is Cafe Istanbul where Neda served as baker for years.
Need-A-Pita occupies the space which the short-lived Bayti Mediterranean Delicacies previously called home. As with Bayti, a pastry case draws guests in like a siren’s call. Under glass, you’ll find some of the most tantalizing sweet and savory delicacies in town. Your eyes will next be drawn to the framed painting on the wall of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. The Dome on the Rock the oldest Islamic monument in the world. Prior to immigrating to the United States, Alex and Neda lived about thirty miles north of Jerusalem in an ancient city called Nablus. Nablus is one of the oldest cities in the world and figures prominently in both Christian and Islamic religions. It also figures prominently in Neda’s cooking.
While the ancient culinary traditions of Nablus are absolutely timeless, prices on the menu are about twenty years out-of-date, not that anyone should complain. It’s increasingly rare in contemporary times to see appetizers, sides, desserts and baked goods for under ten dollars, but that’s precisely what you’ll find at Need-A-Pita. In fact, there are only three items on the menu priced at more than ten dollars. Low prices don’t translate to meager portions either. You’ll find yourself well sated with either a sandwich or a platter (and of course, a couple (or six) pieces of pita).
Unlike some Middle Eastern restaurants, Need-A-Pita embraces the Land of Enchantment’s agrarian bounty, incorporating Hatch green chile into sandwiches or platters upon request. Nor are substitutions (babaganoosh instead of fries, for example) any problem. With a restaurant management degree, Alex exemplifies the hospitality aspects of running a restaurant while culinary degree credentialed Neda certainly knows how to please a palate. Alex runs the “front of the house” like a proud ambassador for his bride’s culinary talents. During our short visit, Sr. Plata and I were treated like welcome guests. A week later when I returned with my Kim, Alex and Neda treated us like family.
17 February 2020: During the era of the Victorian plate, cauliflower was the most expensive and glamorous vegetable you could put on your plate. Today, it’s a vegetable is much more plentiful though some of us can’t enjoy it unless it’s smothered with melted cheese. Need A Pita has created a delicious new way to enjoy the cruciferous vegetable. My friend Elaine Rising and I were fortunate enough to visit when the day’s special was a cauliflower platter consisting of a pita stuffed with cauliflower, pickled onions and parsley served with hummus and Babaganoosh. Rather than coat the cauliflower with a crispy batter, Neda seasons it with garlic and a lemon sauce before frying it. It’s not quite as crispy as say, tempura battered cauliflower, but it’s got a crispy bite that bespeaks of its freshness. Moreover, it’s absolutely delicious with plenty of sumac sprinkled on to accentuate the tartness of the lemon sauce (but not so much that it overwhelms the sandwich). There’s so much glorious cauliflower stuffed in the pita that you’ll probably eat half of it with your fork and still have an overstuffed sandwich.
14 August 2019: As you step into the restaurant, you’ll quickly espy a whiteboard listing the day’s specials. During our inaugural visit, the tempting troika of available specials were a chile chicken shawarma sandwich, chicken shawarma quesadilla and a “grab a bag of pita.” The chile chicken shawarma sandwich, a “Middle Easts meets Hatch, New Mexico triumph in tastiness,” called loudest to me. A warm, fluffy pita pocket is generously stuffed with beautifully seasoned strips of grilled chicken, pickled vegetables and Hatch green chile which actually bites back. Easily discernible on the chicken are some of my very favorite Middle Eastern spices including sumac, cardamom and allspice. The grilled chicken is moist, tender and absolutely delicious, a perfect foil for the Hatch green chile which Alex procures directly from a farmer in the chile capital of the world.
14 August 2019: Curse any low-carb, low-sodium diet that forces diners to eschew pita bread, one of humankind’s most delicious inventions ever. That’s probably what Sr. Plata was doing when he saw my chicken shawarma sandwich on the best pita in the west. Not that he cursed for very long because his chicken shawarma platter was pretty phenomenal sans pita, redolent with the aforementioned spices as well as the inimitable (or so we thought) aroma and flavor of charcoal grilling. Alex explained that no charcoal was involved in Neda’s preparation. That charcoal flavor we discerned comes from Neda’s preternatural use of spices. There was also magic in the preparation of the babaganoosh (SIC), a smoky, silky smooth paragon of creaminess. If this isn’t the very best babaganoosh in the metropolitan area, I have yet to find one better.
14 August 2019: Sr. Plata and I had to retrain ourselves from breaking into verse and song when espied a pastry on the menu called Sumac Chicken House Specialty. Sumac, a rich red colored spice with a bright lemony flavor is a spice we both love. We’ve been known to lament the relative meagerness of sumac on Persian and Middle Eastern foods we enjoy. Even though it’s considered an essential ingredient in cooking throughout the region, all too often it’s used in moderation (at least by our standards). Not so at Need-A-Pita where it features prominently, especially on this dish which resembles a pita empanada. Served with this paragon of pastry perfection is a tzatziki sauce as rich and refreshing as any I’ve ever had. It’s got two of the three essential elements of great tzatziki–sour cream and cucumber–but it doesn’t have dill, the third. What it does have is Neda’s deft abilities to coax fantastic flavors out of ingredient combinations and culinary techniques.
21 August 2019: After espying the chicken shawarma quesadilla on the menu during our inaugural visit, I was determined to order it the next time my visit coincided with it being a featured special. Thankfully I only had to wait one week. Now, it’s practically a cardinal principal that a quality queso is integral to every quesadilla. After all, the very name quesadilla has as its root word “queso” or cheese. If there was any cheese in the chicken shawarma quesadilla, we didn’t detect it. Nor did we miss it. This was a superb quesadilla, another platform for the peerless pita and sumptuous shawarma, even sans queso. The quesadilla encircled an island of hummus sprinkled generously with lovely sumac. It’s outstanding on its own, but even better when you scoop it up with that pita.
21 August 2019: When I ordered the gyros platter with green chile, Alex told me it would be unlike any other gyros patter I’d ever had. Probably like most of you, the term gyro conjures images of a rotating cone of lamb and beef on an upright rotisserie grill. As the lamb and beef amalgam rotates slowly on the spit, juices run off slowly down the conical meat cone. Instead of painstakingly stacking sliced meats onto a cone or (gasp!) heaven forbid, purchasing a pre-formed gyros from Cisco or Shamrock, Neda prepares the meat on a griddle, preventing any run-off of delicious juices. The result are several slices of very tender, ultra moist, thinly stacked meat served atop long-grain rice with tzatziki sauce and hummus on the side. There’s more than one way to enjoy gyros. This may be the best!
17 February 2020: I’d be remiss not to mention the falafel platter, three golf ball sized orbs of pure heaven on Earth. Each falafel is light and airy on the inside and crispy on the outside. Bite into one and you’ll quickly note its deliciousness then it’s color. Great falafel has a herbaceous shade of green courtesy of cilantro and parsley. Olfactory-arousing spices such as coriander and cumin will seduce your palate, too. Alex explained that while falafel may appear to be a rather simple dish, preparing it is a two-day process for Neda who soaks the chickpeas then grinds them meticulously then combines ingredients before shaping and frying them. The falafel is topped with a light tahini sauce. It goes without saying that this falafel could bring peace to the Middle East. It is outstanding!
6 September 2019: There’s a reference on the internet to President Jimmy Carter having inadvertently triggered a cold war in the Middle East by offering a plate of Msabbaha to only one side. You have to read a lot into that reference because there’s no real explanation or background beyond the short reference. Speaking solely from the perspective of a gastronome, I’d be pretty ticked off, too, if I wasn’t offered Msabbaha. When he delivered a bowl to our table, Alex explained it is a very popular breakfast food in Israel. It’s easy to see why. As with hummus, its basis is chickpeas, but instead of being mashed, the chickpeas remain whole and the dish is served warm. Neda’s version includes chopped tomatoes, pickles, cilantro and lots of that glorious sumac. It goes without saying that Msabbaha goes best with pita.
6 September 2019: Feast in the Middle East, a popular recipe blog, calls kafta “the Swedish meatballs of the Mid East.” I’m not sure that’s a fair comparison since Swedish meatballs are smothered in a rich, creamy gravy. Other sites have compared kafta to meatloaf, sausage or even hamburger patties. In truth, kafta is ground beef or lamb seasoned with Middle Eastern spices and grilled. Need A Pita’s version is formed into the shape of a patty and is served with thinly sliced tomatoes, onions and hummus. Grilling seems to bring out the richness and warmth of the Middle Eastern spices. There’s no way this kafta could ever be mistaken for anything but delicious.
6 September 2019: Alex proudly told us that his hometown of Nablus is where the fabulous dessert kanafeh was first created. Considered the most representative and iconic Palestinian dessert, its as beautiful to ogle as it is delicious to eat. With the bright orange hue of a New Mexico sunset (courtesy of a dye which turns the dough its signature color), kanafeh is sprinkled with finely chopped green pistachios. Kanafeh is basically a shredded phyllo dough pastry layered with creamy sweet ricotta and drenched in rosewater syrup. It offers sweet and savory contrasts as well as contrasting textures–soft, creamy cheese; shredded, crunchy phyllo and sticky, sweet syrup. This is a dish fit for royalty.
21 August 2019: Alex may have taken my admission of greatly preferring pistachio baklava to walnut baklava as a challenge. He insisted I’d like Neda’s version–and he was right. As with many other Middle Eastern desserts, the baklava is made with delicate layers of phyllo dough, honey and nuts. Neda’s version involves brushing ghee (clarified butter) on every layer of phyllo which accounts for a distinctive toasted quality. Perhaps to ensure my affections for this tremendous dessert, Neda topped it generously with finely crushed pistachios. Walnuts and pistachios are two-part harmony.
21 August 2019: My Kim’s dessert choice was a most unique and absolutely delicious Middle Eastern harissah (no, not harissa, the Moroccan salsa). Like so many desserts of the region, principle ingredients include sweet, luscious honey as well as a light, delicate simple syrup. That in itself makes the harissah very sweet. The addition of finely shredded coconut amplifies that sweetness even more. Thankfully Neda sprinkled on some roasted pistachios which lend just enough saltiness to prevent the dessert from being cloying.
Men who are notoriously bad gift givers can get back on their spouses good graces by celebrating their next anniversary at Need-A-Pita. Let Alex, that exemplar of gift giving, take good care of you. Bring home a six-pack of pita. Your spouse will consider that a great anniversary gift.
5017 Menaul Blvd., N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 19 February 2020
1st VISIT: 14 August 2019
# OF VISITS: 4
BEST BET: Chicken Shawarma Sandwich with Green Chile, Chicken Shawarma Plate, Sumac Chicken House Specialty, “Grab A Bag of Pita,” Falafel, Hummus, Walnut Baklava, Kafta Platter, Kunufa, Msabbaha, Kafta Platter, Cauliflower Platter