Patience at Pita Hut brings rewards: Salad-enhanced sandwiches shine
* 1/2 (out of four stars)
Sound check: 75 decibels (at lunch), 82 (Sunday dinner)
Let's cut to the chase: At Pita Hut, a welcome new source for kosher Israeli food in Rockville, you should come for the food, not the service. Owners Avi Peretz and Eli Alosh have some great pita sandwiches, but the ordering system seems designed to confuse, if not annoy. And a few more servers wouldn't hurt.
Pita Hut is definitely not a hut: It's a spacious restaurant occupying the former Chop Stix space near Rockville Town Center. Local artwork on the butter-yellow walls enlivens the minimal decor, and there are lots of tables that can be pushed together for the large family groups that come on Sunday, when the restaurant reopens after the Jewish Sabbath. Prices tend to be a little high but not unreasonable for kosher food.
The meats here are very good. (Because this kosher establishment serves meat, dairy products are not available.) The salads and the condiments, such as preserved lemon, garlicky parsley sauce and the spicy pepper sauce called zhoug, are fresh and savory. And the pita bread is downright delicious.
There's a choice between entrees served at the table and sandwiches ordered at the counter; the sandwiches are the way to go. First, pick the meat. Shawarma (seasoned turkey carved off a spit), Jerusalem mix (strips of spiced chicken, lamb and turkey), Iraqi kebab (ground beef patties, a little salty) and Cornish hen (boneless and moist) are the best. The meat is stuffed into a pillowy pita and topped with your choice of fresh vegetable salads.
The salads here are really the stars. Eggplant lovers can get small roasted chunks of the vegetable or two kinds of baba ghanoush. There are also two kinds of fresh corn salad (with or without mushrooms); two cabbage slaws (green and purple); cumin-dusted roasted carrots; pickled vegetables; and a great, lightly dressed potato salad. Add tahini or zhoug or preserved lemon, and you're set.
As for the falafel: Sorry, vegetarians. It's not very good: dense and over-fried one night, undercooked in the center on another. Max's in Wheaton has better, but Pita Hut is a nicer place for sitting and schmoozing. (Don't be tempted by the fries, either. They are sad and limp.)
The biggest problem here for first-time (or even second- or third-time) customers is that they can't get a clear explanation of exactly how to order or what each menu item includes. The posted menu doesn't help much, and the Hebrew-speaking staff behind the counter has a hard time answering questions.
Adding to the confusion is the fact that on weekdays, you can order pita sandwiches or platters at the counter or from a waitress. But on Sundays, you can't order from the counter at all. You can receive only table service, and no sandwiches are available. Or so our waitress told us on two different Sundays. Peretz says that's not correct: You can order a sandwich; you just have to eat it at the couple of seats at the far end of the counter. (Really? And how would anyone know that?)
The entrees served at the table include larger portions of meat, a scoop of Israeli chopped salad, those flabby fries and no condiments. And at a higher price. That makes no sense to me. And one Sunday when my husband and I ordered an Iraqi kebab entree, an assortment of appetizers and the salad sampler, the sampler came without tahini, hummus or the chopped parsley-and-garlic sauce I had enjoyed during a weekday visit.
Explanations are hard to come by. The first time we visited (on a Thursday at lunch), I asked about several of the salads and condiments that are added to the sandwiches. "What's that?" I wondered, pointing to one mixture. "Not spicy." "But what's in it?" I persisted. "Garlic."
Even during a weekday lunch, it's not clear what's included in a pita sandwich vs. a plate. For example, at the counter you can order an $8 shawarma pita and point to whatever vegetables, salads or sauces you want stuffed into the bread. But if you order a $12 plate, you get the meat and pita separately, plus some salad; but what about condiments? Do those come with the plate? No one is really sure (they gave me some anyway). Peretz says a plate should include meat, pita, fries and some Israeli salad. If we got more than that, it's just because "the guys at the counter, they like to spoil the customers."
(That sound you hear is me, banging my head on the table.)
Basically, here's what you need to know: Order your food at the counter. Avoid Sunday table service (unless you're a really big group with lots of squirmy kids, and then just pray for patience). At the counter, don't even look at the big menu board. Just order a pita sandwich.
I need to give a shout-out to the waitresses. They're as helpful and kind as they can be, considering that there apparently are only two of them (sometimes only one) to work the entire room.
On a recent crowded Sunday, they were as stressed as the customers as they tried to juggle a slow kitchen and impatient diners. "You're my favorite group," our frazzled waitress told us after we had been waiting nearly an hour for food. "You're the only ones not complaining to me."
Candy Sagon is a former writer for The Post's Food section. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Keep in mind: This is a kosher restaurant, so no outside food is allowed.
Open: Sunday through Thursday 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday 11 a.m.-2 p.m. (winter), 11 a.m.-4 p.m. (summer). Most major credit cards accepted. Free parking.
Prices: lunch $7.99 to $13.99, dinner entrees $13.99 to $24.99, kids' menu $4.99 to $7.99