Monday, January 12, 2009

The Gyros That Wouldn't Grow Up (Pita Pan; 37-15 30th Avenue)

Fast food generally falls outside of the purview of this blog. Chain restaurants are excluded from our mighty call to eat at every restaurant in Astoria, and while that saves us from the monstrous Applebee's on 35th Avenue, most of the Astoria locations we're skipping are the McDonald's and Wendy's of the neighborhood. There's plenty of food that's fast in the hood -- counter-order taquerias, shawarma stands, gyro joints -- but "fast food"? We'd rather not.

Enter Pita Pan. Like Petey's Burger, this gyro/wrap/pizza/smoothie restaurant has franchise aspirations and an ambiance consciously styled to feel evoke the fast food behemoths -- logos, bright colors, efficient packaging, a crisp air of disposability. Unlike Petey's, nobody over the age of 20 would actively choose to spend more than two minutes in the place -- and nobody who had ever tasted another gyro, ever, would return.

Admittedly, in Pita Pan, we were strangers in a strange land. We're accustomed to the peculiarities of the New York labor market, which typically dictate that the people who serve us our food are usually at least out of high school. But Pita Pan exists in a little adult-free pocket of the neighborhood: When our orders were taken by a herd of chirpy teenagers, we quietly surveyed the clientele and realized we were the oldest customers by at least a decade. (We're adults, yes, but not so old that we've shunned Never-Neverland.) The table of sullen teenage boys next to us slurped Cokes (lukewarm, from the malfunctioning open-face cooler, though when we asked for a cup of ice for our own soda, the request was granted with a smile and a cheerful apology) and meted out onion rings to one another, trying to stretch their allowance for the night. The ridiculously loud music -- which continually stopped mid-song, only to switch to another blaring Hot 97-style aria -- didn't help settle us in. Nor did the bright-orange/kelly-green color combo, seemingly designed to repel us as quickly as possible.

But clearly the minds behind Pita Pan think they've found their lucky ticket. A trio of TV screens embedded in the wall beside the front counter repeatedly flashed "Franchise Opportunity!" graphics over images of the store front (though they often showed pictures of the old gray location next door, now notable for its rat poison warnings). They've invested in a computerized cash register with all sorts of buttons for the various toppings and combinations one could get on their gyro, wrap, salad, or pizza -- insurance for picky eaters who shudder at the thought of white goop soiling perfectly good meat and like to see their preferences confirmed on an order ticket. But all the gimcrackery didn't seem to speed up the food-delivery process, as it took much longer than it should have for us to get our meal, which was brought to us by yet another teen, this one gangly and diffident.

It's not that the food at Pita Pan is rotten; it's that there's no reason for it to exist. Pita Pan would make sense in the food court of suburban malls, places where "tzatziki" would be clearly defined on the menu or absent altogether, listed only as "special Pita Pan sauce" (though Astoria's Pita Pan actually already has a Pita Pan sauce -- an inexplicable ketchup-mayo mixture). Instead, the restaurant is in the center of a neighborhood that harbors the largest Greek community outside of Greece and Cyprus. Do you see Taco Bells in Mexico? Do you see Sbarro's in Italy? Do you see McDonald's in -- never mind. Pita Pan's gyro costs $3, less than you'd pay at someplace like Zorba's, but it's less than half the size, and with a fraction of the taste. The joint benefits from the inherent goodness of shaved lamb thrust inside toasty pitas -- how do you make that not good?

Pita Pan is always busy when we pass by, and the counter was doing a brisk (seemingly endless, even) takeout business while we ate. But we can't be totally alone in our distaste for the place -- everybody there, even the lingering teenagers, ate with their coats on, perhaps unwilling to admit to themselves that they'd found their activity for the night. Unlike other places in Astoria that we concede are good but just not our style, we can't concede to give Pita Pan the same pass.

Price: It's cheap, we'll give it that.
Will we go again? Only if Captain Hook threatens us with a plank-walk.


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