Two decades is a long time to stay in one place. It was over 20 years ago that the first Pita Jungle opened in a little strip mall in Tempe. More than two decades later, the restaurant has become a regional chain with over a dozen locations in Arizona and a few more in California. With expansion, Pita Jungle has finally outgrown and moved out of its original storefront location. It remains in Tempe, though, with a new site close to the Mill Avenue / Third Street light rail station. The restaurant’s other urban location is near the Roosevelt / Central light rail station in Phoenix.
The new Tempe restaurant is a standalone building originally constructed for the Ruby Tuesday chain. With some graffiti and murals, Pita Jungle has recreated the Bohemian vibe of its original site within a corporate box. The Downtown Phoenix restaurant is in the historic Gold Spot building. Both have an open and decidedly urban feel with windows wrapping around most of the dining room, bar counters good for solo dining, and patios to enjoy during mild weather. Bike racks are available at both restaurants, out in front in Tempe and in back in Downtown Phoenix.
Despite expanding at the rate of nearly one restaurant per year, Pita Jungle today seems not too distant from its mid-’90s origins. The menu is often, although not always, meatless. Unlike many 100% vegetarian restaurants, Pita Jungle does not rely extensively on meat analogs. Instead, most of the food celebrates legumes, grains, and vegetables on their own terms. Even those items that incorporate poultry, fish, or the occasional serving of beef do not typically allow the meat to dominate, but instead make it one of several contributors to a mix of tastes and textures.
As the restaurant’s name makes clear, pita bread is ubiquitous here. It comes as a dipping medium with starters like the spicy cilantro-jalapeno hummus or the intense garlic dip. It returns as the wrapper around sandwiches based on chicken shawarma or falafel, and, In a crisper form, it makes an appearance as pita chips on the lentil fatoush salad, which overflows with copious romaine lettuce, lots of little legumes, brown rice, and a fried onion garnish. Lavosh is a close second on the menu as the base for wood-fired pizzas and the outer layer for some of the wraps.
These items are all worth trying for the first time visitor. For those who have eaten at Pita Jungle in any one of its myriad locations for years, it may better to branch out with some of the menu specials. They often overlap between the Phoenix and Tempe locations, but they occasionally diverge to reflect the character of each restaurant. Among the special menu items, varying soups such as tomato basil, coconut curry, red or green lentil, and gazpacho are hefty enough to work as meals, especially when paired with an appetizer.
Pita Jungle doesn’t have a lot of red meat on the menu, but for those who crave it, the Philly Steak Pita has thinly-sliced beef, onions, and peppers wrapped in the restaurant’s namesake bread. No “whiz” here, though; instead, there’s melted mozzarella. Shifting from South Philadelphia to South Asia, there’s a version of chicken tikka masala. The sauce seems more like a coconut milk curry than the usual tomato-based masala. It’s not faithful to the classic dish, but with a garnish of pea shoots and a bed of brown rice beneath, it works on its own terms.
Shifting from land to sea, gambas con ajo is a lively starter that pairs sauteed shrimp with a garlicky tomato sauce. The salmon entree isn’t particularly bold or adventurous, but it’s hard not to enjoy a good piece of grilled fish over creamy mashed potatoes and sauteed spinach. Fast food restaurants have given fish sandwiches a bad name, but the one at Pita Jungle is a better version featuring grilled mahi-mahi on sourdough. Similarly, a salmon burger special tops a generous patty of minced fish with a lively dill sauce and adds a side of garlic new potatoes.
Pita Jungle portions tend to be enormous, potentially negating some of the benefits of its generally healthful menu. Serving sizes in one part of the Pita Jungle menu are smaller by design, though. The “Health Kid’s Menu” for diners 12 and under is a welcome alternative to the endless parade of grilled cheese, chicken tenders, and French fries found so many places. Instead, Pita Jungle’s approach is to give each young diner a sheet full of games and distinct categories in which they can circle their choices of vegetables, grains, and proteins — none of which are fried.
Brunch is a recent addition at Pita Jungle, and each location’s Sunday offerings differs a little in the specifics, but at each restaurant expect some omelets, crepes, and pancakes in addition to the regular menu. Happy hour specials repurpose some of the Mediterranean appetizers in smaller portions served as tapas. Due to the hearty entree portions, it’s not always possible to conclude a meal at Pita Jungle with room for dessert, but when the sweet tooth overpowers satiety, the baklava, an obvious fit with the Mediterranean-inspired menu, is a good choice to share.
Drinks include house made lemonade with free refills (even refills to go), smoothies, wine, and beer. Both the Tempe and Downtown Phoenix locations now have full bars, which has made it possible to add seasonal draft selections and even some cocktails to the beverage selection. Reflecting on the past two decades, a lot from the mid-90s might be best forgotten, but some things from 1994 endure. Pita Jungle, whether in its new Tempe location or in Downtown Phoenix, is one of the better products of the era and continues to grow 20 years later.
4 E. University Dr., Tempe AZ 85281
1001 N. 3rd Ave., Phoenix AZ 85003