Pita Jungle, 1250 East Apache, Tempe, 804-0234. Hours: Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week.
Turn out the lights, the party's over.
The mistletoe, the get-togethers, the holiday dinners, the gifts, the bowl games, the New Year's Eve celebrations are all behind us. It's the morning after the night before, and who can blame us for not wanting to wake up and face reality?
There's nothing terribly festive about repacking the Christmas lights, returning to work and paying off the credit-card bills. Even worse, this week we've got to deal with the resolutions that we impulsively made after chugging one too many eggnogs.
Now, no one's going to feel guilty about failing to follow up on I-didn't-really-mean-it promises to "learn to play the piano," "organize my time more effectively," or the ever-popular "be a better person." Let's get real: Your chances of turning into Van Cliburn, Martha Stewart or Mother Teresa are about as good as your chances of bobsledding down Squaw Peak.
However, some folks may feel a lingering moral twinge over abandoning their resolution to watch what they eat, even before they've given it a try. Blame our Puritan heritage. The weakest-willed gluttons, it tells us, ought to have the discipline to pull their snouts out of the trough, cut back on fried foods and snack on fruit for at least a few days, or long enough to soothe their stricken consciences.
How far do you want to take your healthful-eating resolutions? At Pita Jungle, you can ease your way gently into the world of good-for-you dining. Start slowly with pizza, falafel and nachos. Then, once you're comfortable, gradually work your way to tempeh burgers, sprout-laden veggie pitas and tofu with brown rice. At Desert Greens Cafe, on the other hand, there are no compromises, no halfway menu stops on the road to well-being. Here you'll find the turban-and-sandals crowd, macrobiotic, vegan true believers.
They say you are what you eat. Well, in that case, I'm about as pure as the driven slush. My body has been ransacked more often than the Temple of Karnak. It wasn't until recently that I learned the four principal food groups weren't pizza, French fries, pecan pie and mayonnaise. But after several visits to Pita Jungle, I'm ready to concede that there may be something more to this healthful-eating business than twigs and berries.
At prime eating hours, this delightful place is packed with a young crowd, its members intent on doing something good for their bodies and souls. Checking out the message printed on the napkins puts their consciences immediately at ease. "By using this recycled, bleach-free napkin," it reads, "Pita Jungle is saving per year: 51 trees, 21,000 gallons of water, 9 cubic yards of landfill space, 12,300 kilowatts of energy and 180 pounds of air pollutants." Wow! Saving the planet, and it keeps your face clean, too!
Set in a strip-mall storefront overlooking a parking lot, Pita Jungle is sparely decorated. There's colorful artwork for sale, a reading rack and signed celebrity photos featuring celebrities that no one over the age of 22 will recognize.
In general, the food here conforms to Seftel's Law of Good Eating, which posits that the tastiness of a dish is inversely proportional to its nutritional density. This theoretical insight permits us to understand why, for example, diners consistently prefer glazed doughnuts to wheat germ in a blind taste test.
It also explains why I like Pita Jungle's lahvosh salmon wrap so much. It's a marvelous combination of smoked salmon rolled with low-fat cream cheese, red onion, tomato and an extravagant amount of capers. At $6.25, it's just about the most expensive item here, but no one is likely to feel shortchanged.
I'm equally impressed by the pesto pizza: mozzarella, feta, mushrooms, tomatoes, spinach and fresh basil loaded atop pita bread. It's a good choice for a group to share as a munchie, as long as everyone in the party can be counted on to stick to the correct allotment. The Mediterranean Platter is also well-suited for sharing. It's a heaping pile of hummus, tabbouleh, baba ghanouj, stuffed grape leaves, feta cheese, yogurt dip, green beans in tomato sauce and two very spicy falafel balls.
If you've come with an appetite, chicken shawarma is a first-rate option. It features generous hunks of rotisserie-grilled white meat teamed with tomatoes and onions, all rolled in thick pita bread that's been coated with a zippy garlic sauce. You'll need both hands to heft this filling sandwich.
The more explicitly health-conscious menu items tend to be less gastronomically appealing. "What's better, the veggie burger or the tempeh (soybean patty) burger?" I asked the proprietor. "Tempeh is better for you, but the veggie burger tastes better," he quickly responded. If that's the case, I can only wonder what the tempeh burger tastes like, since the out-of-the-box veggie burger, fashioned from ground veggies and breadcrumbs, had almost nothing going for it. Another pseudoburger, a grilled portabella mushroom model, also couldn't make me forget the real thing, no matter how many fixings I loaded onto it. The fungus is also way too small, barely covering half the bun space.
The shrimp scampi wrap is a disappointment. It turns out that shrimp scampi here translates into a few spoonfuls of those tasteless, thumbnail-size critters. Your $6.25 gets you mostly brown rice, and almost none of the garlic, cilantro and lemon juice punch the menu description promises.
In contrast, the Macro Platter brings no disappointment whatsoever, since it's just as dull as I imagined it would be. No doubt, diners who somehow make their way through this bland assortment of beans, brown rice, unseasoned veggies, tofu and seitan (made from wheat gluten) expect to live longer. My guess, however, is that life will only seem longer. The honey pasta salad is a tastier good-for-you alternative, lots of rotelli and veggies aided by a kicky honey vinaigrette and a hint of ginger and garlic.
Make sure your healthful-eating resolution includes Pita Jungle's dynamite homemade rice pudding dessert, a knockout confection brightened with cinnamon and golden raisins. It should also take into account the nut-studded, honey-drenched baklava and extra-thick smoothies. That way, when you leave, both your conscience and your taste buds will be happy.
Desert Greens Cafe, 234 West University (Gentle Strength Co-Op), Tempe, 968-4831. Hours: Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, Tuesday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., Saturday, 7 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Monday, 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
Last summer, the restaurant inside Gentle Strength, Tempe's long-running health-food market, got some overdue freshening and spiffing up. With its track lighting, eye-catching yellow-topped tables and colorful wall art, the dining area no longer looks like the setting for a James Cagney prison mess-hall scene.
The menu also got a face-lift, courtesy of a new chef brought in from Tucson's Canyon Ranch spa. He faced a daunting task: feeding a demanding clientele who believe eating is an exercise in duty, rather than a sensual pleasure. "Natural," "organic" and "vegetarian" are the three most important words in their dictionary. How tough is this crowd? Years ago, I overheard a regular extolling the virtues of a dish to a recent convert:
Regular: "The macro staple has lots of different beans and rice in it. They're combined for maximum protein effect."
Convert: "How does it taste?"
Regular: "It doesn't taste too good. I eat it all the time."
Trying to cope with such dour culinary principles could shake up even the most sympathetic, health-conscious kitchen. Because almost everything on the menu is either macrobiotic or vegan, the chef's list of ingredients is necessarily limited. And limiting a chef's ingredients is like limiting the colors on an Impressionist's palette. But Desert Greens' crew has done a surprisingly effective job coming up with some palatable fare.
Red bell pepper soup is particularly outstanding, offering an irresistible combination of nutritional virtue and deep, rich flavor. Another broth, the tomato basil, can't keep up--it tastes too healthful. Maybe a craftier hand with the seasonings might perk it up. Meanwhile, the miso soup, as you might expect, preaches strictly to the converted.
Probably the best thing here is the Pressed Hippie, a grilled sandwich loaded with three cheeses, roasted peppers, eggplant and onion, spiced up with cilantro and garlic. I also enjoyed the Alternut burger, an offbeat hamburger-substitute fashioned from nuts. (Desert Greens gets it from a local company.) You'll need to pour on some organic ketchup--it's a bit dry--but the taste is definitely there. And if you come on a day when the crunchy potato-corn croquettes are available, don't hesitate. Coated with a thick mushroom sauce, they're so good you'll forget they're good for you.
Pad Thai is nothing like what you'd find at a Thai restaurant. Still, you have to make allowances. And once I did, I found the stir-fried mix of thin rice noodles and veggie assortment an edible option, although the addition of Thai seasonings would have definitely helped. The same weak ethnic punch held back the Mediterranean Melange, a snoozy platter of hummus, tabbouleh, feta cheese, marinated tomatoes and olives, served on a bed of greens.
Pizza, a Saturday feature, should be rethought. Surely, the chef can make his own dough, instead of relying on tasteless, plastic-wrapped pizza bread. The veggie burger is pathetic, totally devoid of flavor. And I can't work up much enthusiasm for the jicama-laden veggie wrap, either.
I can, however, sing the praises of the cafe's side salad, which accompanies most dishes. You get an impressive mix of fresh, organic greens and a choice of three topnotch dressings.
The concept of good-for-you dessert seems to be a contradiction in terms. "Healthful" sweets tend to be heavy and not very interesting, and the ones here are no exception. There's no reason to bother with the applesauce raisin muffin or chocolate chip cream cheese twist, unless you're planning to wash them down with the excellent organic coffee.
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Once upon a time, Desert Greens Cafe's customer base would have been made up mostly of cult members who sold dead flowers at the airport. Not anymore--organic, vegetarian eating has gone mainstream. If you've resolved to undergo serious nutritional rehabilitation, Desert Greens Cafe is probably where you should be starting your program.
Desert Greens Cafe: