Cafe Pita: Pedestrian Name, Food with Panache

Katharine Shilcutt's list of the Houston Restaurants Every Out-of-Towner Should Visit should go to 11. Because if you come to Houston and do not visit Cafe Pita, you are not just missing the opportunity to try Bosnian food (period), you are missing your opportunity to relish terrific Bosnian food (exclamation point).

I know this much is true because last week I took my husband and his parents to Cafe Pita after hearing them reminisce about the foods they enjoyed during a visit to see my brother-in-law in Skopje, Macedonia. In the absence of any purely Macedonian restaurant in Houston, Cafe Pita seemed the most appropriate stand-in.

By the end of the meal, however, my in-laws and husband weren't feeling nostalgic for Macedonia. They were kicking themselves for not hopping over to Serbia when they had the chance. The food was that good.

At Cafe Pita's newest location, an unassuming one-story cottage on Richmond, we arrived to find the dining room pleasantly crowded for a Monday night. The waitress brought out glasses and a corkscrew for BYOB bottles in tow while we perused the selection of starters, entrees, and house specialties.

Very modest prices and enticing descriptions made it tempting to order (too) many dishes. So, we didn't resist, beginning with some fried cheese, eggplant dip, and feta with ajvar. A triple success, though unsurprising given that Cafe Pita makes nearly everything in-house from fresh ingredients. That includes the supple wedges of fried cheese, lightly battered and arranged around a mound of the vibrant, fiery ajvar. Lepinja , a spongy flatbread, accompanied all three dishes and proved helpful as well as delicious in sopping up the vegetables spreads, especially the eggplant dip flush with large chunks of roasted aubergine.

Cafe Pita offers an assortment of hearty pizzas and sandwiches on its menu, but if you're gonna go Bosnian, go Bosnian, I say, and focus on the staples. The hadzijski cevap, tender minced beef kebab in a creamy tomato gravy, was good enough to slurp right out of the bowl.

We forced ourselves to exhibit a modicum of decorum by scooping up mouthfuls with the lebinja in between swapping bites of our personal entrees, like the Bosnian musaka, a layered square of eggplant, zucchini, and bechamel set upon a sea of robust tomato sauce, and the mix platter, an overwhelming (but only in a good way) cornucopia of cevapi, stuffed pljeskavica, beef and chicken kebab, and basmati rice. Of special note was the unpronounceable (for me) but delectable pljeskavica, a succulent patty of ground mixed meats stuffed with cheese and wrapped in lebinja. The Bosnian version of a hamburger, perhaps.

I am the first to admit I am very critical when it comes to Eastern European desserts. My maternal grandmother made some damn good Polish and Slovak sweets and I'm loyal to the memory of her terrific nut loaves, kolaczcki, and pies.

Well, Nanny's long gone, so I guess it's okay to say that Chef Omer Okanovic's cheesecake baklava stood up to some of her best creations. Described as "a marriage of the two greatest desserts," the cheesecake baklava is a most happy union of intense cream, paper thin phylo and honeyed walnuts. It's dairy meets crunchy meets nutty meets sweet and the only thing missing is maybe a second piece, which you'll crave on the way home even after devouring the entire massive first slice, much to the chagrin of your father-in-law.

I have aspirations of visiting Poland this summer to get in touch with my roots (to be accomplished, I envisioned, by drinking a lot of beer and eating mounds of pierogi), but now I'm revising my itinerary to include a stop in Belgrade. Until then I'm more than content to satisfy my cravings at Cafe Pita.

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Joanna O'Leary