Filling the Gaps: Cafe Pita +
Let me see your cabbage roll
Photo by Nicholas L. Hall
I've lived in Houston for 22 years. It took me 16 of those to visit the Rothko Chapel for the first time. I didn't eat at Ninfa's on Navigation until I'd counted myself a Houstonian for nearly a decade. I still haven't eaten at Frenchy's. The list of glaring omissions goes on and on. Before you boot me from the city for civic negligence, or at least refuse to continue allowing me to write about Houston food, let me assure you that 2014 is the year I start fixing this problem. I'm making a list of places. Places I should have been by now. Places even I can't believe I haven't visited. This is the year I get (re)acquainted with my city. Maybe you'll find a few from your own list in these posts. I encourage you to follow suit.
I wish I could say I first heard about Cafe Pita + through pretty much any media other than Guy Fieri. Something about his particular combination of pinky rings, sculpting gel and half-wit-chuckle makes me involuntarily shudder every time I catch sight of the sunglasses perched on his greasy nape. The flip-side to that, of course, is that the guy actually highlights some cool places.
The tiny, converted house on Richmond is Cafe Pita's second location. If you hold your arms out and spin in a circle, you can practically touch all four walls in the sunny space. The small size makes for friendly, personal service. The waitstaff - all one of her - is more than happy to guide you through the menu, if you're new to Bosnian cuisine. When I couldn't decide between the Hadzijski Cevap (cevapi, beef kebab and veggies, sautéed in a light creamy tomato sauce) and the Sarma Cabbage leaves stuffed with ground beef and rice served with kajmak and lepinja bread), her unbridled enthusiasm for the stuffed cabbage made it an easy decision.
I tend to have a fractious relationship with stuffed cabbage. Too many examples are just too much. Stodgy and heavy, their overly compressed filling bound tightly by mushy and flavorless cabbage. Those leaden versions give stuffed cabbage a bad name it doesn't deserve.
Here, the stuffed sour cabbage (whole heads, fermented like sauerkraut) is a simple, beautiful example of the form. A delicately spiced mixture of finely ground beef and rice, the filling is just cohesive enough to hold together until it hits your mouth. Then, it falls apart into a tangle of silken cabbage and gentle beef, which crumbles very pleasantly. The cabbage is delicate and sweet, tinged with a pleasant sour note, with none of the sulfurous funk that comes of poor cooking and results in so much misguided hatred. The rolls sit in a light and lovely tomato broth with just enough acidity to feel spritely and alert. Little droplets of oil dot the surface, adhering to the lepinja you won't be able to resist dunking.
The lunch special also included a soup or salad option. I chose the bean soup. Light and tomato-based, it reads a bit like a dressed up version of Campbell's Bean with Bacon, a childhood favorite made constant by the preferences of a vegetarian brother who made unremarked-on allowances for bacon and various cousins of kielbasa.
Instead of bacon, thinly sliced salami lends a nice fermented tang and complex flavor. That lepinja bread has the perfect texture for sopping; its grilled exterior nicely contains the soup-soaked sponge inside, offering a nice contrast of textures. Spread a bit of creamy/fluffy kajmak on your bread. Like a cross between cream cheese and funky cultured butter, it offers a nice enrichment.
Much has been said about the cevapi at Cafe Pita. It's hard to deny the pleasures of sausage and bread. If you've been to Cafe Pita for the cevapi, I suggest you go try a few more of their specialties. Ask your waitress for a recommendation, and don't be surprised when she hard-sells the cabbage. This is elegant food in a rustic form factor, and worth the 30 minutes I spent watching Guy fist bump and sound bite his way across my TV screen. Winner Winner Chicken Dinner indeed, Triple D.
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