Lebanese jewel in the mini-mall
By Richard Foss
I am lucky to have a very good dentist – one with a calming manner, friendly office staff, and a hygienist who efficiently deals with the consequences of my days that start with coffee and finish with red wine.
I recently had another reason to be happy that I visit this dental office, since the road home involves waiting for the light at Pershing Drive and Manchester Avenue in Playa del Rey. The sign for a Lebanese restaurant was right in my path, pointing to the corner of a mini-mall, and I had to stop in.
The scent of the items they were preparing and a glance at the menu convinced me to return; just finding out that they make two different kinds of traditional sausage was alluring, so I rounded up four friends and came back for dinner.
Lebanese meals traditionally start with appetizers called mezze, so we ordered hummus, homemade sausage, the fried meatball called kibbeh, spicy fried potatoes, and the traditional fava bean stew called fool mudamas. Fool mudamas is a popular Middle Eastern breakfast dish, and it’s easy to see why you might want to start your day with this – the lemony, lightly garlicked broth with overtones of onion and cilantro wakes up your mouth. I’m a big fan of this dish and order it anywhere it is offered, and this is the best I’ve had anywhere in Los Angeles.
The hummus was also fresh tasting and unusually light and creamy. I prefer a bit more garlic, but the other people at the table thought it was perfect. There was garlic aplenty in the fried potatoes – actually French fries, that had been tossed with red pepper, lemon and spices. These were good, but the kibbeh was better. The football-shaped meatballs with pine nuts and spices were rolled in bulghur wheat and fried, with the exterior lightly crisp while the meat inside remained moist and flavorful. Kibbeh are sometimes served with hot sauce on the side, and while I might have liked just a bit, the flavor was fine on its own.
We also tried one of the varieties of the homemade sausage that first caught my attention. Playa’s Pita makes soujuk, a dried peppery sausage, and makneek, the fresh and milder version. The grilled makneek was rich in flavors of cumin, red pepper, clove, coriander and other spices, and was served in a mild tomato sauce. The mélange of flavors was a reminder that the world’s spices once traveled through this region, and the locals came up with many ways to use them.
For main courses we selected a sautéed vegetable plate, falafel plate, lamb chops, a mixed shawerma plate, and a daily special of chicken and potatoes in a yoghurt-based sauce. Shawerma, beef or chicken cooked on a rotating spindle, is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser – if you like exterior cuts of roasted meat, you’re going to like it. The chicken and beef were served in abundant portions and exactly as they should be, but what stood out was the variety and authenticity of the other items on the plate. Most places offer just white rice or some green salad – here the rice was augmented by two types of homemade pickles, an onion salad and tangy olives.
The same accompaniments arrived alongside most of the other entrees, with the falafel plate an exception. Here there was a cabbage-based mixed vegetable salad garnished with radishes, pepperoncini and pickled turnips. It was a beautifully presented plate and the falafels themselves were exceptional – crunchy and fragrantly spiced with a tangy garlic sauce for dipping.
The lamb chops were less artfully presented but also interesting. They were served medium, verging on medium well, as is traditional in much of the world but unfashionable here. The lightly charred herb crust was tasty, and even those who prefer lamb medium-rare should try it.
The baked chicken in yoghurt sauce, a daily special, showed a subtle side of this cuisine; spices were used delicately to create something much like the tangy sour cream sauce typical in Hungarian food. I preferred the more robust dishes but found this a pleasant contrast, and it’s ideal if someone in your party is not a fan of the full flavors that abound in this cuisine.
We finished with homemade baklava and a very modest bill – our lavish dinner for five ran $113, and we departed with leftovers. Playa’s Pita offers fantastic food, friendly service, and an opportunity to enjoy one of the world’s great cuisines – as well as a reminder about the virtues of keeping your eyes peeled for new restaurants on every trip around town.
Playa’s Pita is at 8501 Pershing Drive in Playa del Rey. Open daily 11 a.m., close 9 p.m. except Sunday at 8 p.m. No alcohol served, children welcome, table service. Menu at playaspita.com. §