I have found myself spending more time in Tempe eating. This is due to a double-whammy effect for me: cheap and ethnic.
Of course, I know the reason for the cheap is the catering to the ASU crowd. Since I am an alumnus of that fine institution of higher education, I take my emeritus status to the streets of Tempe in search of some fine grub.
One of the places that always seems to get mentioned as a Tempe favorite is Pita Jungle. I have heard this place mentioned over and over again and I decided it was time to see if it was the genuine chowish place or just another store front that was popular because it was cheap or chic or both.
Dave the Roommate and Neil and I headed there for lunch. Unfortunately, we had to brave the monstrosity that is now Apache Boulevard, which is under more construction than Anna Nicole Smith. We did make it to the strip mall that contains Pita Jungle and had to wait for a few moments to snag a spot and not end up parking on the side streets nearby.
We entered the place and was immediately taken by how large the place is. From the outside, it looks like it would be a small place with just a few tables, but once inside, the restaurant opens into a large, open area filled with tables and hungry college types. We were immediately seated at a table near the front and only a few minutes passed before our server brought us menus and took our drink order. Neil and I had Iced Tea ($1.95 each) while Dave had a Diet Pepsi ($1.95).
While our server got our drinks, we reviewed the menu. It was rather comprehensive and I was glad to see some interesting twists on such things as pita sandwiches and additions to hummus. When our server returned, we were pretty much ready to order. Dave got the Chicken Combo Platter ($7.95). Neil decided to go with the Philly Chicken Pita ($5.50) with a side of Mixed Beans ($2.25). I had the Shawarma Pita ($5.95) with a side of the Garlic Potatoes ($2.25). For our appetizers, we tried the Hummus with Grilled Chicken ($5.95) and the Pita Crisp ($2.95), their version of a Cheese Crisp.
As we sat and waited for our meals, I surveyed the interior. It is very much like a warehouse inside which lend itself to a lot of volume in the restaurant. There were a few plants and pieces of art work, but the place was spartan, yet very clean. The place was very busy and there was a small line waiting at the entrance. There were a couple of tables outside, but the heat of August was not conducive to enjoying an outside table, even with the misters going.
About 10 minutes passed and our Hummus with Grilled Chicken arrived. The large plate came filled with a creamy hummus that was topped with freshly grilled chicken and pine nuts. It was garnished with parsley flakes and olives. A basked of pita bread triangles was served along with the hummus. I grabbed some pita, then some hummus and chicken and took a bite. This was a revelation to me. Hummus and grilled chicken are a match made in heaven. Absolutely delicious. The hummus was garlicky and creamy with a full-bodied taste. The chicken was very moist and had a slight smokey flavor that really made everything that much better. The pine nuts were a delightful crunch that gave great texture to the dish, although I wish there had been a few more of them scattered over the dish. Dave and Neil and I were enthralled with the hummus. It was really a perfect way to start the meal. My only complaint was that they served us this large plate of hummus and then skimped on the pita.
Next up was the Pita Crisp. This was a very simple production. A large pita bread had been covered with cheese and then baked until the cheese melted until bubbly and the pita was heated through. We each grabbed a piece and liked the flavor. The cheese was a fairly sharp cheddar and the pita was fresh. I liked it much better than Dave or Neil. They both felt that the pita should have been much crispier. I think, in hindsight, that was a very valid observation, because the pita was hot, but chewy. A nice crunchiness in texture would have been quite good.
We had just finished the last bites of our appetizers when our entrees arrived. Neil’s Philly Chicken Pita was a large pita wrapped around grilled chicken that had been sauteed with onions and bell pepper. The chicken mixture was then covered with Swiss cheese. Neil, not being a bell pepper fan, had them hold those. Neil was quite happy with his choice. He said the chicken was tender and flavorful and they weren’t conservative with the onions or the Swiss cheese. It must have been good as Neil inhaled it in minutes.
Dave’s Chicken Combo Platter looked great when it was put on the table. The platter featured a bountiful serving of the grilled chicken piled on brown rice and served with an order of Mixed Beans and a spot of garlic sauce. A pita bread round was also provided. Dave really enjoyed the dish and was very pleased with the chicken. He said the brown rice was fluffy and hot and had been properly cooked. He said the brown rice really worked well with the flavors of the grilled chicken. He also liked the garlic sauce and the pita that accompanied the platter. He said the platter was more than enough food for one person.
Unfortunately, Neil and Dave weren’t so hyped about the Mixed Beans. While this mixture of Lima, kidney, Great Northern, and Navy beans certainly looked appetizing, Neil said the taste was incredibly bland. Dave tried the same dish which was part of his combo and found them to be “tasteless.” The sauce on the beans looked to be tomato based and there were onions in the mix, so I am unsure how they managed to kill off the entire taste of the tomatoes, onions and beans. Perhaps overcooking or lack of seasoning. In any case, these were a bust.
My Shawarma Pita was filled with grilled chicken, onions, tomatoes, pickles, tahini and some of the garlic sauce. My pita was heavy from the ingredients and it proved to be a messy experience, but that didn’t bother me. Like Dave and Neil, I had nothing but praises for the grilled chicken. It was a definite winner for the restaurant. The mixture of toppings only enhanced the chicken and I adored the tahini and garlic sauce that was generously drizzled all over the filling of my pita. The whole sandwich was quite good and I was very pleased with this selection.
The side of Garlic Potatoes were okay. I wish they had been great. However, there wasn’t much in the way of garlic on them. They seemed liked simple red potatoes that had been boiled and then tossed with a bit of butter. While the potatoes were perfectly cooked and were pretty with the red skin and parsley flakes, these spuds were bland. A healthy dose of garlic would have really pushed the potatoes into the good category.
We were stuffed when we finished our meals and we all groaned a collective “no” when we were offered dessert. We asked for our bill and the total was $41.02 including tax. We all felt this was a bargain, considering the sizes of the servings. Service was friendly, but occasionally inattentive.
As we stumbled to the car with our full bellies, we chatted about our experience. We enjoyed our meals at Pita Jungle and would return without any hesitation. Their weak point is definitely the side dishes, especially the beans and potatoes. However, the place is a genuine bargain and we could see why it would be popular with college students. For under $10, you could easily chase away the hunger pangs.
So, we got back on Apache and did our best to avoid the construction, noting a lot of interesting restaurants along the way.
Like I said, cheap and ethnic is music to my ears, sans the construction.
1250 East Apache Boulevard
Tempe, AZ 85282
Notes: There are two other Pita Jungle locations (Scottsdale and Chandler), but I am told the Tempe location is the best of the three.
Additional photos can be found at www.feastinginphoenix.com