Sometimes a restaurant will open up in our small college town and draw most of us out of our humdrum eating habits, at least for a while. But, all too often, the popularity and the newness wear off, and before long, the restaurant is forced to close.
Other times, though, a small local eatery fills a gap and times things just right to sustain that early success and actually survive. That's the story with Pita Alley, a self-described Turkish food - Mediterranean food - Sandwich Shop. The lines ran out the door when they opened in 2011, and have tapered off slightly to a steady stream of international students and professors hungry for home, and the rest of us who love gyros, shawarma and such.
For me, it is the "and such" that pulls me back to Pita Alley. Well, that and the jolly colorful decor, which is a bright spot in a strip center that is almost as old as I am. The menu is not overly ambitious, but everything is good, the portions are a gracious plenty and the service is friendly. I love Greek-style pita (the flat kind, not the pocket kind) and that's what they use. I also love tzatziki, hummus, dolma, tabouli, gyros, char-grilled chicken and baklava. I wish their Greek salad were larger, with more of the good stuff, plus cucumbers and mixed with crispy iceberg or leaf lettuce, instead of soft baby greens -- all in a big bowl, not a plate. And served with grilled pita wedges. Always have a dream!
But the dish than lingers on my mind is their rice. The menu describes it as a side dish of basmati with a mild blend of spices, topped with almonds and raisins. Ever the flavor detective, I have made my own version a couple of times and come so close to their spice blend, that I am very satisfied with my homemade version. I used dried apricots in place of golden raisins, and jasmine rice just because I love the flavor and flowery aroma. At home, the rice is especially good with grilled chicken or fish, but I've been thinking about adapting it into a cold rice salad for summer.
I'll still be at Pita Alley for favorites that I'm not even going to try to duplicate at home. Gyros, that would be you!
Mediterranean Spiced Apricot Almond Rice
Spice Blend - equal parts of the following, or to taste:
2 tablespoons salted butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/2 cup slivered or chopped almond
1 tablespoon Spice Blend
1/2 cup diced dried apricots - if too dry, soften with hot water and drain before chopping
4 cups cooked jasmine rice, refrigerated overnight, broken up with a fork
Mix Spice Blend and set aside. Press precooked and refrigerated rice with fork to separate grains. Heat butter and olive oil over medium heat. Add onions and sauté until translucent. Add almonds and Spice Blend; stir until everything is blended with seasonings. Stir in apricots and add rice; continue to stir over heat until well blended and heated through. Cover with tight-fitting lid to keep warm until ready to serve. Serves 4-6 as a side dish.