This week's culinary journey is a virtual world tour comprising three stops at diverse points in the St. Louis area.
Our first destination is Pita King, a fine illustration that there is, in fact, more to West County strip malls than a seemingly unlimited choice of hairstylists, frame stores and places to buy sheets and shower curtains. Part Middle Eastern grocery, part deli, Pita King is an ideal remedy for those who have overdosed on endless miles of generic chain restaurants and fast food.
That, and it's a bargain! You'll be hard-pressed to drop more than a fiver, and then only if you go for the daily buffet, which features a rotating menu of baked chicken and lamb, as well as the standard à la carte menu items of falafel, gyros, hummus, tabbouleh, doulma and baba ghanouj.
We wandered in fairly late one evening, well after the buffet had shut down, and found a magazine on one of the tables, open to a crossword puzzle filled with the elegant squiggles of hand-lettered Arabic. The air was gently perfumed with roasted spices and filled with conversation, none of it in English.
Owner Mohanned Alsaliti quickly shifted to the local tongue, however, and smiled ever more broadly as we kept adding sides to our main order of falafel and gyros. The falafel is terrific -- mashed garbanzo beans pressed into patties and spiced; cooked briefly but not until over-oily; gently flavored with parsley, onion and garlic; and then wrapped into a carrier of the pocket bread that gives this place its name. The gyros are very good but standard -- pretty similar to the same classic vertical roast of beef and lamb that you can find at any number of Greek and Middle Eastern restaurants around town. The meat is shaved into thin slices and mixed with tomato, onion and yogurt-based sauce, again served in the eponymous pita.
The doulma, though, is an elegant tidbit, featuring the full, bitingly smoky flavor of grape leaves wrapped around a neutral filling of meat and rice. The hummus, served in the bi tahina style with the addition of sesame paste, is a creamy mash of garbanzo beans that's a near-perfect garlic-delivery device.
Add a buck for a baklava and you've got a wonderful, complete meal -- and if you want to try a little do-it-yourself, the side wall holds several shelves stocked with both staples and exotica. All of Pita King's meat is halal, which means it conforms to Islamic dietary laws.
Manic Multinational Market
Our next stop is in Kirkwood, at the northern edge of the downtown area, where an old National supermarket space was transformed last March into the descriptively named Global Foods Market. If it reminds you a whole lot of Jay's International Foods on South Grand, that's not a coincidence -- like Jay's, it's owned by Sue and Suchin Prapaisilp.
If you happened to be in the Global Foods Market a couple weekends ago, you may remember me -- I was the one practically skipping from aisle to aisle, letting loose with "oohs" and "aahs" and even the occasional "yippee" as I discovered yummies from all corners of the globe at virtually every turn: Fresh Indian bitter melon in the produce case. Moldovan and Lebanese wines. Russian hard candies. Perhaps the largest selection of sausages I've ever seen in one case at one time in all of St. Louis. (I really got a kick out of the Schmalz's brand name.) Eel and even fish heads (99 cents a pound) in the fresh-seafood case. Scores of smoked-fish selections. Whole lambs, goats and pigs. Japanese shumai and gyoza, Russian pelmeni and Indian samosas, side by side in the freezer case. Something like 100 hot sauces, plus a massive array of chiles, fresh and dried. And much, much more.
Scattered around the store are the same everyday grocery items that we mere mid-American mortals shop for every week. I didn't directly compare basics like milk and bread, but with Jarlsberg cheese at $4.89 a pound and shiitake mushrooms a steal at $1.99 a pound, the appeal at the Global Foods Market isn't just the fabulous selection of one-of-a-kind items.
Our final destination this week is an old favorite for all-you-can-eat with a twist: Govinda's on Lindell, just west of St. Louis University. Run by the Iskcon of St. Louis/Center of Vedic Studies (the local branch of what is generally known as the Hare Krishnas), Govinda's serves up a short list of vegetarian items from a glass-brick steam table in a sparsely decorated officelike space. It's a paper-and-plastic, clear-your-own-tray operation, but it features some really tasty vegetarian food, subcontinental style.
Raw items, chutneys and exotic dressings make up the small salad bar; on the evening we visited, the selections included a lightly battered eggplant and a tofu-potato-and-pea stew, with sesame and other seeds the most tangible flavoring. Each dish was served on a bed of either brown or basmati rice. Lentil soup was also available, a golden, brothy variety with a significant hot-pepper kick at the end, and the crispy papadam, or lentil crackers, are enough in and of themselves to lift the diner to a higher plane.
The finishing course is a scoop of sweetened farina (best known to us as the basis for Cream of Wheat cereal) and a date, with a nice herbal tea and a less attractive Hi-C-like punch available to wash it all down.
There's a small Krishna-oriented gift shop right in the dining room, and the line server wore an animal-festooned apron noting that he "doesn't eat friends," but other than that, there was no evidence of His Divine Grace Prabhupada's mandate for "profuse distribution of transcendental literature." Just a couple of smiling servers and a meal that was enough to bring more than just a touch of inner peace. n
PITA KING, 108 Holloway Rd. (Ballwin), 636-207-8779. Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. daily. Entrees: $2.95-$4.95.
GLOBAL FOODS MARKET, 421 N. Kirkwood Rd. (Kirkwood), 835-1112. Hours: 8 a.m.-9 p.m. daily.
GOVINDA'S, 3926 Lindell, 535-8085. Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri.; dinner, 5:30-8:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 6-8:30 p.m. Sunday. All-you-can-eat: lunch $5, dinner $6.