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There never seem to be enough places around here to get good and healthful Mediterranean food, things like pita sandwiches, hummus and falafel. Especially falafel. This makes a nice little place like Tahina's especially welcome. Tahina's is sandwiched on a small strip between the popular chains Noodles & Company and Qdoba Mexican Grill.

Tahina's looks like it's part of a chain, too, a particularly well-thought-out chain. This is the only one, though. But when Tahina's owners, Jory Schurnick and Jeff McCabe, are asked the inevitable chain question, their typical response is that the Owings Mills location is "the first of 300."

The origin of Tahina's sounds like a challenge on The Apprentice or like the kind of inspirational story you see in popular business magazines. Directors of a branding and consulting firm that helps develop restaurant concepts, Schurnick and McCabe decided to, as they tell it, put their money where their mouths were. Tahina's represents their attempt at developing not only a successful restaurant but, more specifically, a prototype for a chain. Along with other owners who joined their team, Schurnick and McCabe essentially became their own clients.

The results are very impressive. Tahina's at first glance has what looks like a very abbreviated menu - just four pita sandwiches and a few sides - but there are hundreds of ways to assemble tasty meals there. The basic pita sandwich, filled with falafel, chicken, beef or vegetables, is just the starting point. The fun begins with the added ingredients, which start with lettuce and tomato but include good-looking and fresh preparations of hummus, chickpea salad, roasted eggplant, cucumber-and-tomato salad, tabbouleh and baba ghannouj, and such finishing touches as a tomato-feta spread and zesty garlic sauce.

Food is ordered at a cheerfully staffed counter, which is a model of efficiency and coherence, with smart graphics identifying choices of toppings and stuffings, all of which look freshly maintained. The superb falafel is the obvious choice. It has a nice surface crunch, but it's moist and fairly robustly seasoned on the inside. It's available as a side dish, too, five for $2.49. I liked the sandwich we ordered with thin slices of juicy beef, too, topped with a cool cucumber-tomato salad and feta spread. I appreciate the nifty surgical-fold pita that helps to keep the fillings from pouring out. The chicken was not as tasty as it looked.

Just about everything that you can order as a topping is also available as a side dish. (The menu doesn't say this, but the helpful staff will tell you about it.) It's hard to resist the eggplant fries, though, and it's hard to stop eating them. Both these and the regular fries are meant to be enjoyed with Tahina's sauce bar, a variation of the famous Belgian fries experience. A lot of fast-food places have sauces you can squirt into little paper cups for dipping fries into (I mean, one of Tahina's eight sauces is ketchup), but somehow calling it a sauce bar makes it into an experience. I loved it. Plus, a few of the sauces, like the cucumber-wasabi and the spicy mayonnaise, are really good.

I liked my experience there. There are chains and then there are chains. It doesn't take long for people interested in what they put in their bodies to find out which places are using good ingredients. The only thing that worried me was how consistent Tahina's could be with quickly perishable items like falafel, eggplant fries and cucumber salads. On my way out, I asked a couple who looked like regulars - they sang the praises of Tahina's consistency, and I believed them.

I love the quirky and admire the offbeat, but there's something very satisfying about watching someone build something that works.

On the menu

* Beef pita - $6.99

* Falafel side - $2.49

* Hummus with chips - $4.69

* Frites - $2.79


Where: 10450 Owings Mills Blvd., Suite 105

Call: 410-363-2299

Open: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday

Sides: $2.49-$4.69

Entrees: $5.29-$6.99

Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express

Food: *** ( 3 STARS)

Service: *** ( 3 STARS)

A mbience: *** ( 3 STARS)

[Outstanding: **** Good: *** Fair or uneven: ** Poor: *]

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