Salad Days PHOTOS: Riley Kimball

Salad days

Mediterranean diet makes waves in Pita Jungle

By Dan O'Heron 06/30/2011

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From the freshness of the fruits and vegetables to the extent and variety of planting, Pita Jungle’s 11 full-meal salads make the greenery plates of other restaurants in the area seem slightly wilted.
 
The Jungle’s “Caribbean” is an eyeful and a load-on. Full to the brim with seasonal cuts and cubes of fruit over mixed greens, topped with shredded coconut and raisins, the huge round mound is a steal for $10.99. It begs for three to share. Only astronauts, stuck for months in a space station, squeezing food from a tube, would crave to have it all to themselves. 
 
Other Mediterranean-style salads to share without feeling slighted include a tabbouleh of finely chopped veggies mixed with crushed kernels of bulghur wheat ($6.99); minted spinach, spiraled with short cuts of rotini pasta, plus tomato, mushroom, bell peppers and pesto ($8.99); a lentil brown rice fatoosh ($9.69) and grilled vegetables ($9.99). 
 
Viewing the salads, I could tell at a glance that the chefs hadn’t merely tossed a hodgepodge of ingredients with a dressing and called it a day. Everything appeared to be handled with care. 
 
Yellowed and limp leaves had been discarded. Fresh greens, undoubtedly, had been rinsed under cold water and dried; dressings won’t stick to wet leaves.
 
Beyond salads, there’s a wide array of vegetable-driven pita pockets and wraps, combos, pizzas and burgers, including a popular $8.79 grilled, steak-like portobello mushroom burger. With all the veggie etceteras, slathered with Dijon mustard, it comes on a whole wheat bun, sided with garlic mashed potatoes. 
 
Dishes like these should make vegetarians as happy as toads hopping in a garden. But wait! This is not a garden. It’s a jungle. So you’ll need prehensile lips to nail down and pluck liberal chunks of tuna, chicken and salmon from other salads ($9.69 to $12.99). And a voracious appetite is needed for “Philly Steak” in a pita ($7.59), spicy chicken and pesto turkey in a purse of crackling lavosh, plus a Middle Eastern bazaar of wood-fired pizzas (from $7.59 to $9.99). 
 
The restaurant likes to say it “pleases meaties as well as greenies.” As expected of a Mediterranean diet that is both healthful and palatable, seafood dishes are prominent. They include a pecan wood-fired fresh salmon with garlic mashed potatoes and spinach ($15.99) and a firm and flavorful mahi mahi pebbled with pine nuts and served with cilantro/jalapeno hummus, pea sprouts and pita chips ($11.99).
 
Having missed lunch the other day, I dropped into the jungle for a light, mid-afternoon meal that wouldn’t spoil my supper. With luck of the draw, I chose two dishes that went well together at a modest price: a small Greek salad ($5.99) and melted cheddar pie ($3.99). 
 
The salad, a Greek classic with all the vegetables, kalamata olives and sprinkles of feta, soaked in the shallows of a dandy lemon vinaigrette. The other dish was a seven-inch round, flattened pita slathered with sharp cheddar and segmented into six pieces. Called “Pita Crisp,” the pita wasn’t crisp, but it tasted fine.
 
With warm brick walls leading up to an airy vaulted ceiling, Pita Jungle’s setting is pleasant enough. However, the walls are studded with large paintings that are impressive but controversial. With bright and dark streaks and tangles, some lines twisting like a map of jungle rivers, they have a nightmarish quality. They make me feel like I’m in a rain forest without an umbrella or trousers.
 
With 13 outlets in Arizona, this is Pita Jungle’s first move outside the state. “We needed room for expansion,” said local franchisee Sam Ashek, “and the demographics in Old Pasadena looked perfect for us.”
 
It’s OK for me too, especially in the summer. Replacing fattening foods with palatable veggies and fruits, maybe I can become less 
of a person and fit back into a swim suit. 

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