Cafe Pita + (Bosnian/HOU)
This was mentioned in the New to Houston thread and is new to me. It’s been reviewed favorably by both the Press and Chron. At 10890 Westheimer it’s located about 1/4 mile west of the Beltway, back from the street at the end of a strip center. The street-side sign is ½ block before the restaurant.
I had the Bosnian Grah, a traditional bean soup with sausage. Had I re-read Robb Walsh’s review in the Press before going I would have been forewarned it was very bland. However, I did get some bits of sausage in mine, unlike Walsh. The accompanying lepinja (Bosnian bread) was warm and very good and held out the promise of better things to come. I like Walsh’s description of it as a cross between a pita and focaccia better than Alison Cooke’s description of a pita on steroids, which doesn’t sound very appetizing to me. I also discovered when I looked under the hood of my cevap on my second visit that the texture is very similar to an English muffin in appearance.
The meza plate included 2 meats, soujuk, a dried beef sausage resembling pepperoni but less spicy and salty. I’m a sausage-aholic and I loved it. Pastrma, listed as pastrami on the menu, is another dried beef dish looking something like a pile of shavings of country ham on the plate but similar to beef jerky in taste, though tenderer. It was also very good. The 2 cheeses included a feta and monterrey jack. There were 2 varieties of pickled pepper, a slender yellowish one that didn’t have much taste other than the brine and another that seemed to be a small yellow bell pepper split and stuffed with something like sauerkraut. I liked the latter more than the former. You also get ajvar, a spread consisting of pureed red pepper (i.e., pimiento), eggplant, garlic and salt with a little bit of chili pepper thrown in for a very mild heat. The plate also included gherkins and black olives which both seemed to me like they could have been found on any supermarket’s shelves. I would have liked something more interesting in the way of olives.
On my second visit I had the fried cheese appetizer, a real winner. Perhaps sauteed would be a better descriptive term - think of a cheese-only pizza minus the crust. It’s an in-house made fresh cheese, dusted with black pepper and served with a dollop of ajvar and wedges of lepinja. It is not dipped in any sort of batter like the cheese sticks so common on menus. I could make a meal of just a couple of orders of this and a salad, and I haven’t even tried their salads. I also tried one of the signature dishes, cevap (pronounced seh BOP I think), ground lamb shaped like Little Smokies, grilled and served in a 5 or 6 inch round of lepinja that’s been split horizontally. There were 10 links in mine. Impossible to eat as served, you tear the bread in sections, put one or two of the links in it, top with a cream cheese/butter/feta spread provided and chopped onions, roll it up and devour. Very good, though not as spectacularly so as I had expected from the pictures and descriptions in the newspaper reviews. From re-reading Walsh’s review I think I was supposed to get some more ajvar with this but didn’t. Cevap is the Bosnian version of gyros and like the ones at Niko-Niko’s mine was so hot when served I had to handle it gingerly. The bread has been scored for easy tearing but you do have a knife and fork, too.
The iced tea I had on my first visit was really weak. I tried the Shokata on my second visit, a Fanta beverage with a grapefruit like taste that is actually based on a traditional Bosnian beverage - socata - made from elderberry flowers. According to recipes I’ve found on line socata has no grapefruit in it. I liked it though it was a tad too sweet for my taste. They have fountain drinks, unlimited refills, and you can also buy bottled soft drinks and water. The bottled Coke I saw on one table had a paper label on it so maybe they are serving Coca Cola de Mexico with real cane sugar.
I enjoyed my visits and will be returning. Service has been friendly. A crowd had gathered for a soccer match on the big screen TV on my second visit but they were very quiet. I still want to try the burek, a meat or vegetable stuffed pie, and the grilled sardines, plus more fried cheese and lepinja. The menu is only 2 pages.
Robb Walsh has an affinity for this food from his upbringing and he really liked it - understandable. I think at this point I like it a little less than he. Cook in the Chronicle compared the place to Chef Kaiser’s Himalaya. After my first visit I thought she was out of her mind but after a second visit I’m prepared to give her a little more credit though I still don’t think this place comes close to the awesome food at Himalaya. Nevertheless, it’s one of my more satisfying finds this year.
On a visit in August (a Saturday night) I found the food to be fresh and homemade tasting. In a word, totally honest. Additionally, the prices are low (less than $20).
Grilled sardines: AMAZING. butterflied sardines marinated for 24 hours in olive oil, and "secret" spices. Some of the best sardines I have eaten. Plentiful serving as an entree accompanied with basmati rice (good quality), and roasted vegetables.
Stuffed cabbage: cabbage pickled for 48 hours and then stuffed with ground beef and rice. Pickled taste reminiscent of kimchi, very filling. Cabbage wrapping was great.
Fried anchovies: whole small anchovies bought that morning, fried with a light batter. Slightly bitter tasting (probably the fish, not sure) but served with plenty of fresh lemon.
Eggplant dip: roasted eggplant - tasted like grilled eggplant but not a super grilled taste I've had in middle eastern places. fresh, with lots of lemon.
The baklava is Bosnian style. Pastry (and filling) are made in-house. The walnut/honey stuffing is very wet compared to middle eastern baklava but much less sweet which made it a great dessert (for me). They also have a version with rose water, more akin to middle eastern baklava.
Turkish coffee - served in a quaint copper coffee pot, and little copper and porcelain coffee cups. It is excellent (for Turkish coffee). I poured a little cold water into my cup to get the floating grounds to fall to the bottom of the cup.
The bread is pita style on steroids (i.e., fluffy) , made every day, sometimes risen 4 times depending on the day's humidity.
Although it is 17 miles from me, this is the neighborhood bistro I wish I could walk to any night of the week. It is located in a strip mall, off of Beltway 8, next to a liquor store which helps with the BYO status. it is small with 15 tables or less. Omer the owner/chef (I presume) is unassuming and extremely friendly, which made the experience even better!
Additionally they were supposedly opening a Bosnian food store nearby. EVOO from Montenegro (same stuff they use in the resto) will be available for sale.
I visited the Balkan Foods store across the street (Lakeside Country Club Dr., not Westheimer). It now has a big banner hanging over the door so you can find it. It is a well-lit, well-stocked little store with a very helpful attendant. I was very glad to find I could buy some of the lepinja there. You get three pieces, each about 6" in diameter and 1" thick for $2.25, a good price. It's baked fresh in the store each day. I'm looking forward to having some of this with breakfast in the morning and trying it out with some great chili I made last week. I also picked up some ajvar, the brand they serve in the store, which has more eggplant that the ajvar I bought at Phoenicia Specialty Foods, and some Pate de Oie (goose pate). There were lots of interesting foods including lots of sweets. They have the cevapi and other Bosnian sausages and meats in a refrigerator section. Robb Walsh had said in his review they were not able to obtain the kajvak, the cream cheese/feta like spread and were making a substitute to use in the restaurant at the time of his visits but they have 2 varieties of it for sale in the store. I also saw the pickled Bosnian cabbage leaves, flat style, to be used for cabbage rolls, I guess, and too many other things to remember. I'm going to have to try to find some recipes and go back to get the ingredients to try things at home.
I meant to look for the cheese that they use for the fried cheese appetizer but forgot to. On that topic, however, on a subsequent visit to the restaurant I had the fried cheese appetizer again and this time it was battered, a very light batter that was fried to a very light golden brown and was delicious. I don't know if they've changed the way they do this or just different individuals in the kitchen but I'll take it either way, battered or not.
I also tried the Cockta, another soft drink that was described as being sort of like a blend of Coke and Root Beer - whatever - it was very good, in fact, I liked it better than the Shokata I had before.
EDIT: Wikipedia says the primary ingredient in Cockta is dog rose berry with 11 herbs, orange and lemon.