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Pita Beef - for those who like the Xi'an lamb burger

Bob Martinez Jul 9, 2012 08:20 PM

The lamb burger sold at Xi'an Famous Foods in New York City has been attracting attention for a number of years now.


Here's a home made alternative.


I first tried pita beef at the Atlantic Antic street fair in Brooklyn more than 20 years ago. It was made by an elegant Muslim man in a white caftan and cooked on a gas fueled griddle. I watched him cook it , a mixture of loose ground beef, onions, and spices. The cooking smell drove me mad. He served in a pita pocket and it was beefy and spicy and a bit greasy in a good way. I’d never tasted anything like it and I was in love.

Through a process trial and error I learned to make this at home. It became a sort of comfort food for me. Paired with cold beer, I can easily polish off two. In times of special need, when no one is watching, I can even finish three.

Flash ahead 20 years. We were at the Flushing mall a couple of years ago trying the vaunted lamb burger at Xi’an Famous Foods. While I liked it a lot, it was a lamby doppelganger for my very own pita beef. The other thing about the Xi’an sandwich was that using lamb is really besides the point – the assertive spices overpowered the flavor of the lamb. They might as well have used beef.

To tell you the truth, I like mine more. Mine doesn’t have those troubling chewy bits that the Xi’an burger has. It’s got strong elements of cumin and chile, along with paprika and as much cayenne pepper as you can stand. Onions and garlic too. The resulting flavor profile is a bit Latin and more than a little Eastern. This is not a mild sandwich but it needn’t be overpowering either. It depends on how you make it.

I posted about this a few years back and promised to share the recipe. Well, here it is. I must have made it 10 times in the interim but I’ve never used a written recipe – I’ve always made it by the taste-and-tweak method. Well, this time I actually wrote things down.

Meet the spices – cumin, chili powder, paprika, cayenne pepper, and salt.


A softball sized onion. The fork is in the picture for scale.


Four big garlic cloves.


Not pictured, because it’s shy, is a 2.3 pound package of ground chuck, 80% lean. Buy leaner meat at your peril – you run the risk of a dry sandwich.

I use a really big frying pan because it makes it a whole lot easier to stir the mixture. Once again, the fork is in the picture to provide scale.


Prep - 5 minutes

Finely dice the onion and garlic. Since I have crap knife skills I use a food processor.


Cooking - 25 to 40 minutes
Begin frying the meat over medium plus heat, breaking it up with the end of a spatula and stirring frequently so it starts to cook evenly. When you’re finished breaking it up there should be no large pieces of meat left.

As you’re stirring, add the spices –

2 tsp salt - we like salt, you may want to cut this back a bit

3 tbs of ground cumin - you may want to add this in increments, tasting as you go along.

3.3 tbs of chili powder

2 tsp paprika

.75 tsp of cayenne pepper (again, you might want to add this in increments



When the meat is fully browned but *not* fully cooked (see above) add in the onions and garlic. Stir until fully mixed.



Let it cook for about 3 minutes, then stir it again. Lower the heat until the mixture is simmering slowly. The onions will release a lot of water. You’ll want to reduce this liquid or the mixture will be soupy.


The last picture was taken about ¾ of the way through the cooking. Note the steam coming from the onions and on the right, the liquid is being reduced.

Stir it once again after around 3 more minutes, tasting and adjusting the spice levels one last time.

Cook it a bit more. When you’re done there ought to be just a bit of liquid at the bottom of the pan. (You’ll want that because it will keep the sandwiches juicy.) Stir one last time to mix the remaining liquid with the meat, shut off the flame, and cover to keep it hot.

Load the Pitas
Cut the end off a pita loaf and carefully make a pocket. It will be a whole lot easier if you make the pocket *before* you toast them. The Sahara pitas work really well - some of the “authentic” pitas don’t form pockets easily or they’re just too large.

Toast the pita until it firms up but *not* until it’s brown. Too little toasting and it will fall apart when you add the beef. Too much toasting and the pita will be brittle and break.

Hold the pita by the ends and squeeze it slightly to make it say “ah.” Scoop the meat in with a medium sized spoon.

The meat is robustly flavored so you don’t need to overload the pita. About ¼ to 1/3 pound ought to do it.


Serve with something cold. Beer works for me. You’ll get 7 or 8 sandwiches out of 2 lbs. of meat.

Extra points: This stuff reheats really well. Spoon enough beef for a sandwich into a small bowl, cover with waxed paper, and nuke it for about 80 seconds. Scoop it into a toasted pita and it will taste like it’s freshly cooked.

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    darrentran87 RE: Bob Martinez Jul 9, 2012 09:21 PM

    Sounds awesome... thanks for sharing!

    1. pdxgastro RE: Bob Martinez Jul 9, 2012 10:52 PM

      Hey, does anyone else cheat and toast their pitas in a toaster? You have to cut them in half first.

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