Pita Express' Kwik-E-Kabob

Everyone asks for the toum at Pita Express, the Levantine garlic paste almost electric in its pungency. With the long-ago demise of the much-missed Sassoon Chicken in Orange, this is the most potent toum in the county, a condiment that can buckle the unsuspecting, that enlivens everything its fumes touch. But you have to ask for it; otherwise, it remains a secret to the gnostics, to those of us who know—a telling metaphor for this dive.

People have sold Middle Eastern food of some sort at Pita Express' location for years, although under different names. The small restaurant, carved from the liquor store next door, used to be a pizzeria that sold bad pizzas and even-worse kebabs. But it switched over to a full-scale Middle Eastern eatery earlier this year, albeit one with a limited menu. Really, all that's offered are sandwiches and plates, with acceptable sides such as kibbe and hummus. The owners have to hedge their bets with efficiency—it's on a stretch of Baker Street surrounded by German and Japanese auto shops—and a demographic reality: There ain't many Middle Easterners in this part of Costa Mesa, so also available are surprisingly delicious quesadillas and fajitas, baptized in that magical garlic sauce.

Those dishes hint at OC's glorious multicultural future; in the meanwhile, concentrate on the sandwiches, gigantic creations wrapped in a way to emulate the breakfast burritos so many Costa Mesans love. The shawarma scintillates with its abundant juices, the product of having spun on a spit for hours. The chicken's crisp skin is reminiscent of Zankou's at its best; the kebabs deserve inclusion in our 100 Favorite Dishes listicle going on right now on our Stick a Fork In It food blog. And the true believers can wash down everything with a container of doogh or bottles of apricot juices with Arabic script on them.

The owners are more talented than their humble confines, but they're in it for the long run; a big, strangely diagonal sign went up a couple of months back. All hail Pita Express—and the upcoming Halal Guys: If you can't top this, go back to NYC.

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