Israel in the house at new East Bay falafel spot with thick, hot pitas

 

The self-serve pumps for the tehina and spicy z’hug sauce are from Israel. So is the machine that makes the falafel balls and drops them into the fryer. And so is the Jewish mother who’s the chef.

Gotta Eatta Pita, a 2-week-old casual eatery in Danville, looks as American as any Chipotle restaurant, but the Land of Milk and Honey is running through its veins — from Tel Aviv–born owner Yaniv Benaroya to his Bat Yam–born mother, Shoshi, to the huge turntable oven that cooks the pita.

The motif, however, has nothing to do with Israel or the Middle East. The restaurant has a bright-but-earthy, thick-wood, hip and urban feel, and it’s the kind of place that has “franchise” stamped all over it (one of Benaroya’s goals).

Gotta Eatta Pita’s well-designed box: It holds a pita sandwich, zips across the middle for easy access and then serves as a container for the uneaten portion.

Operationally, the 19-seat restaurant is like a Chipotle: Customers approach the counter and choose 1) pita or bowl, 2) falafel balls or chicken shwarma, 3) all kinds of fixins.

I want to say the calling card is the pita, prepared on-site and baked in the oven for one minute. The end product is not only thick and puffy, but it comes to the customer fresh and warm. “Just like the experience you get in Israel,” Benaroya said. Thick and warm is indeed wonderful.

But overhailing the pita is doing a slight disservice to the falafel, which is perfectly crispy on the outside and moist but well-cooked on the inside. It’s practically fried to order, and not only that, but there’s a timer at the front counter, and any falafel balls still in the serving tray after eight minutes are taken away — bound for chicken feed.

The fixins include standards like hummus and Israeli salad, but other options include Israeli couscous, a richly sautéed Greek-style eggplant and goat cheese feta. Pita sandwiches and bowls are $6.95, and a kid’s tray (a pita, a main dish and three sides in compartments) is a mere $3.95.

Benaroya, 37, has been working on the restaurant for eight months, but “it’s been in my blood since I was 18,” which was five years after his bar mitzvah at Temple Beth Sholom in San Leandro (his family moved to the East Bay from Israel when he was 5).

Owner Yaniv Benaroya at the falafel machine, which makes the balls and dumps them into the hot oil.

As a teen, he worked in Alameda at the Waterfront Deli, which his parents owned for 18 years. And after he graduated from Castro Valley High School, they bought him the bakery that supplied their pitas, Pita King. It distributed to 200 sandwich shops and markets, and the woman who owned it was looking to sell.

So at 18, Benaroya all of a sudden was the Pita King.

“I jumped into it and ran it for two years,” he said. “I rolled up my sleeves: baker, driver, I did everything. But then I realized I needed a college degree to think bigger.”

So as Pita King got squeezed out of a Walnut Creek shopping complex looking to upgrade, Benaroya decided not to relocate, and off he went to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo to major in business and finance. That led to a career in real estate. But the pull of pita proved to be too strong.

Sauce pumps imported from Israel

He and his business partner bought a former hot dog spot on the fringe of downtown Danville and redesigned it. Before settling on the Gotta Eatta Pita menu, they were considering going vegetarian. But they decided to change direction after research revealed “70 percent of customers want meat.” Interestingly, so far the orders have been split about 50-50 between chicken shwarma and falafel, Benaroya said. The chicken is free of hormones and antibiotics.

Benaroya lives in Alamo with his wife, Yael, and their two young daughters, who go to preschool at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette.

Yael, who was born in the U.S. to Israeli parents, helps out at the restaurant and adds to the Israeli factor. So does Benaroya’s mom, Shoshi, who oversees a staff of 18 but will be phased out as soon as people learn their jobs.

“And then she will help with the opening of new stores,” said her son, who admits he is already scouting for his next location. Yes, he has big plans for Gotta Eatta Pita. I say try it now so you can always boast, “I ate there before it was a chain.”

Gotta Eatta Pita

110 Hartz Ave., Danville

Open daily 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

(925) 230-0990

www.gottaeattapita.com; GottaEattaPita on Facebook; @GottaEattaPita on Twitter

SO LONG, MOISHE’S: Shortly after Moishe’s Pippic opened in 1987, I stopped by for a corned beef sandwich and wasn’t too impressed. I made a couple of visits over the next two decades, and pretty much had the same reaction.

But for the deli’s 25th anniversary last December, I visited and tried some chopped liver and matzah ball soup. And whaddya know — both were really good! Maybe the place got better over the years. Certainly the Yelp reviews improved: Of the 16 written in 2013, eight give Moishe’s five stars, and five give four stars. (Overall, the deli had 206 reviews with an average of 3.5 stars.)

The chopped liver at Moishe’s was ground by hand every day, and included shmaltz. Even deli expert David Sax, author of “Save the Deli,” noted that Moishe’s “does some of the best chopped liver I’ve had.”

And now that Moishe’s closed on Dec. 1, I am going to reveal the secret to owner Joe Sattler’s matzah ball soup (last year he made me promise not to tell). We already knew he cooked his matzah balls first in packaged Manischewitz soup mix, then took them out and deposited them into his own chicken soup. But here’s the secret part: 1) He used the Manischewitz mix itself to make the matzah balls, and 2) he mixed two boxes at a time and added an extra egg, which created balls that were floaters rather than sinkers — “like a mousse,” he once explained.

Moishe’s Pippic might not have been your cup of kreplach, but Sattler worked his tuchus off for 26 years and his place will be missed.

LEFTOVERS: Napa Valley winery Hagafen Cellars had two of its wines served last week at the White House Hanukkah parties: the 2011 Napa Valley Merlot ($32 retail) and its Lodi-sourced Don Ernesto 2012 Collage Roussanne ($18). Ernie Weir, Hagafen’s founder and proprietor, proudly notes that Hagafen wines have been served at the White House more than 25 times since 1980, often for Israeli diplomatic functions … Through the end of the month, S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services will receive 15 percent of designated purchases made at Charles Chocolates, founded in 2004 and owned by Chuck Siegel. Online buyers (www.charleschocolates.com) or customers at the store (535 Florida St., San Francisco) just need to supply the code “JFCS” …  The Community Table, the café at the JCC of San Francisco, is going to take over the center’s kosher kitchen next month. The aim is to prepare kosher meals for catering, for the café and for the JCCSF’s lunch program. The kosher caterer 12 Tribes had been using the kitchen since 2011 … The “Israel Series” at Temple Israel in Alameda will show the one-hour video “The Foods of Israel” at its next meeting, 10 a.m. Sunday, Dec. 15.

Save room for …

The so-called “national knish shortage” — caused by a damaged machine at Gabila’s Knishes on Long Island last month — is not affecting these San Francisco spots:

House of Bagels. The Geary Boulevard location sells big, round potato, spinach and kasha knishes it buys from Los Angeles. They are baked, not fried (like Gabila’s signature product).

Shorty Goldstein’s. Made in-house every morning, from Grandma Shorty’s recipe, these knishes are light dough wrapped around a creamy mix of mashed potato and onion. They are baked and small, with three per order.

20th Century Café. Old World favorites such as bagels, poppy seed babka and honey cake are among the many baked goods at this 5-month-old spot at 198 Gough St., but maybe the most popular item is a small, flaky, round potato knish. It’s made with hand-rolled dough and spices.

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Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr is J.'s former managing editor and former Hardly Strictly Bagels food columnist. He lives and writes in Mexico.