The word “university,” once confined to institutions that combine higher learning and a research mission, has taken on a broader meaning in recent decades. Corporations routinely describe their internal training departments as universities, and non-traditional academic entities without physical campuses have also used the term, sometimes with considerable controversy. With universities here, there, and everywhere in both the physical and virtual worlds, it’s not surprising to see a restaurant call itself a university, specifically Pita University.
This particular university is located just a block from the University/Rural light rail station, surrounded by new construction on the campus of the adjacent actual university, Arizona State. The southeast corner of University and Rural remains a cluster of suburban-style single story buildings, so far untouched by the increasing pace of vertical development in Tempe. The standalone building that serves as Pita University’s campus has been both a barbecue joint and a kabob purveyor before settling into its current identity as a quick-service Mediterranean restaurant.
The modest building has an interior dining area and a shaded patio of roughly equal size. A bike rack is found right outside. The restaurant’s decor is unremarkable with the exception of branded wooden tables. Due to current public health concerns, on-site dining at those tables is not allowed; however, even before restrictions related to the current pandemic were implemented, Pita University had cultivated a sizable takeout business, along with delivery via just about every third-party service in existence, all of it relentlessly promoted via Instagram hashtags.
Pita University has menus posted on its website and on electronic signs along the wall and over the counter. Customers form a line and then order from the team member preparing the food. There are essentially two ways to enroll at Pita University: The first can only be described as “Chipotle-style.” Customers specify a base layer such as saffron rice or waffle fries and then add a protein, vegetables, and sauces. The second is to order one of the standardized creations listed on the menu in four distinct categories: bowls, pita sandwiches, subs, and salads.
Before enjoying an entree, either custom or off-the-rack, customers have the opportunity to enjoy a few appetizers. Hummus with a side of pita bread is an obvious choice here, but several indulgent fried options are also available, including jalapeño poppers, mac-and-cheese bites, and avocado bites. The last item features creamy bits of avocado within a crunchy fritter and a side of sauce for dipping. The ranch-like “U sauce” is one of many sauces that can be used to accessorize most dishes here. Other options include Greek tzatziki and spicy red chili sauce.
Pita University’s saffron rice with its golden hue and fluffy texture is an appealing base for a custom-built bowl with a topping like the restaurant’s falafel, itself moist on the interior and appropriately crisp on its outer shell. Chicken tikka masala in an Indian touch, available in a bowl or as the filling for a pita wrap. Another south Asian influence is biryani, available as a special, usually on Fridays or holidays. When it’s available, the yellow rice is mixed with bone-in pieces of chicken, ample seasonings, and garnishes of minced onion, cucumber, tomato, and lettuce.
The restaurant’s pita wraps combine fillings like chicken shawarma with sauces like hummus and tzatziki, often in combination. In fact, the shawarma wrap follows the lead of the California burrito with French fries inside the rolled bread with the chicken and vegetables. If looking for even more potato, upgrading the sandwich to a combo adds not only a drink, but also a side of waffle fries. The other sandwich option as Pita University is a sub. Any of the meats can be placed inside a sesame roll, but this configuration seems best suited for ribeye steak.
Salads take a base of greens and add a layer of meat or falafel on top. As with the bowls and sandwiches, there are several suggested creations, along with the possibility for extensive customization. The Greek salad with its kalamata olives, feta cheese, pickles, and chickpea over crunchy romaine leaves is a natural match for slices of gyros meat from a giant cone in the back kitchen. The chicken tikka masala salad may not sound intuitive at first, but it works well by combining chunks of poultry in a gently spiced sauce with green chutney.
Pita University does not serve alcohol, but it augments its soda fountain with a selection of viscous fruit smoothies with flavors like mango that complement many of the Mediterranean and south Asian flavors on the menu. These beverages can of course serve as meals in themselves or as filling liquid desserts. For those wanting a solid sweet, the restaurant offers two types of baklava. The first, more commonly seen in local restaurants, is the typical triangles with a walnut filling. The second is more of a rolled structure with its own distinctive flavor.
Both are packaged to go, making it easy to save a piece for later. In fact, Pita University’s whole approach is one of food to be enjoyed on site when conditions allow or easily taken to any of the multitude of apartments and dormitories that surround the ASU campus in Tempe. These days, so many people are both learning and ordering food online, that a takeout-oriented restaurant with “university” in its name doesn’t seem like that much of a stretch. Operating under challenging circumstances in its freshman year, Pita University is passing its courses.
921 E. University Dr., Tempe AZ 85281
University / Rural Station