Mr. Pita Loco

Pita Loca is a place I usually frequent alone, even when my wife comes along. She pretends she doesn't know me. She'll stand a few feet away, as if she's a separate customer, when I order my hummus sandwich to go.

It works like this: The man behind the counter hands me the pita bread with a schmeer of unimpeachable hummus inside, points to the salad bar, and tells me to add whatever I want. I proceed to the meticulous task of selecting as many options as possible, and, through shrewd space-management techniques learned from years of packing suitcases and car trunks, fitting them all inside the flimsy pocket of bread. My wife takes another step back. I start with the basic dice of cucumber and tomato, along with obligatory slices of onion. "Roasted eggplant is a must!" I might mutter to myself while dismissing the pickles and ignoring sticks of turnips dyed in beet juice; I often bypass the beets as well, if only for the sake of avoiding potential purple stains. Tomato salad is redundant; ditto the cucumber salad. First tough choice: red or white cabbage salad? I usually take both, and regret doing so later on when I've got to leave a poor Tuscan pepper behind. I never leave out the roasted, hot green peppers.

Next comes the important part: dousing the only-partially overstuffed sandwich with tahini and hot sauce -- if you wait until you've packed the pocket to capacity, as rookie pita-stuffers are apt to do, the bottom of the sandwich will never see those sauces. Parsley-riddled tabbouleh salad starts the shorter second stuff, followed by chickpeas rolled in paprika and garlic. Finally, a last splash of tahini before giving the sandwich back to the counterman to wrap in foil. His hand always drops by a good six inches when the plumped pita is placed into it. I'm not certain, but I think I once overheard a Pita Loca worker whisper to another, "Here comes Mr. Big Spender," as I walked through the door. "You're probably imagining things," my wife reassured me. "In reality they would be calling you much worse."


Pita Loca

601 Collins Ave, Miami Beach

305-673-3388. Open Sundays-Thursdays noon to midnight, Fridays noon until one hour before Sabbath. Closed Saturdays.

While it's true the hummus sandwich is just $2.95, I often get a beverage too -- sometimes even one of the fruit nectars imported from Israel, which at $2.75 quenches thirst and guilt. Actually I could avoid the whole situation by simply eating my sandwich on premises, in which case I'd be given a plate and be free to pick from the salad bar as I pleased -- but what's the challenge to that?

I've tried other dishes at Pita Loca, like the cleanly fried, coriander-flecked falafels, and the beef, chicken, and lamb shwarma, which is especially excellent in the larger, fluffier laffa bread. I pay the extra for laffa when it comes to all sandwiches and platters except hummus -- the delicate spread tends to get smothered by the thick folds of bread. As I believe I've made clear, I prefer smothering the hummus under an avalanche of salad instead.


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