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Iraqi Inspired Falafels Delivers Highs Under Arizona Skies

Pita Bistro Co-Founder Sarmad Amanoail  says  that playing with marinade spices and flavours is not only a feast for the palate, he likens it to the experience of tasting colours.

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Pita Bistro Co-Founder Sarmad Amanoail  says  that playing with marinade spices and flavours is not only a feast for the palate, he likens it to the experience of  tasting colours.

By Mike Madriaga

Pita Bistro, a Tempe-area Mediterranean kitchen, will hit ten years in business in September this year. According to Co-Founder Sarmad Amanoail, the restaurant was inspired by the flavours he enjoyed in his childhood.

“The inspiration for our Pita Bistro menu came from when my family and I had to move out of our home country, Iraq. We had to go to the neighbouring country because of the Gulf War we endured. We lived in Jordan for a little bit. There, I would stop by a small neighborhood falafel shop and go every day and buy a sandwich. It would be my lunch after school,” says Amanoail.

Young Amanoail became a regular, and the shop owner offered him small jobs to clean up and run to the grocery store in exchange for free sandwiches.

“He invited me to make the falafel sandwich one day. At that moment, an epiphany became clear and I knew that I would have my own restaurant,” says Amanoail.

Fast forward to 2024, and Pita Bistro sells hundreds of falafels a week.

Amanoail co-founded the restaurant with his cousin Naseem Gulli.

“My cousin has always been my close friend since we were young. He moved from Detroit to Phoenix back then, and we opened up the restaurant,” says Amanoail.

One thing that keeps customers coming back is that the mom-and-pop bistro is brisk and efficient.

“It’s a two-minute process. That’s starting from the line by the door, the end of the line to get your food and cash out,” says Amanoail.

The system includes picking between delicacies from the Middle East and the Mediterranean Sea, which are then added to wraps, bowls, or salads. The modern restaurant off 48th Street serves a mix of custom orders and preset menu items “to make it easier for people eating this for the first time,” says  Amanoail.

Think of the Subway or Chipotle food preparation business model — with a Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and Arizona twist.

“I want everybody to enjoy watching the process, seeing all of the ingredients in front of you,” says Amanoail.

A popular vegetarian order is the Feisty Falafel wrap. The pita wraps are made with a veggie, rice or lentil base and Sriracha hummus provides feistiness. The falafel, ground chickpeas that are seasoned and flash-fried, make delectable meat alternatives and are popular street fare throughout Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Turkey, Israel, Iraq and beyond.

Amanoail also concocted a unique Chicken Shawarma recipe to metro Phoenix.

“This is our creation,” he explains. “We use 12 different spices to marinate our chicken to give it flavour, and it takes us 24 hours to marinate,” says Amanoail.

The team makes all of the marinades in their prep kitchen across the street, then the chicken breasts are char-grilled and served with pickles, tomato and garlic sauce.

The Kickin’ K-bob bowl starts with rice or lentils and is topped with jalapeno and cilantro hummus, cucumber, tomatoes, onions, chickpeas, parsley and a hearty chicken skewer.

“The cilantro jalapeno hummus was inspired by me living in Arizona,” says Amanoail.

While some of the flavors take inspiration from Amanoail’s current home, his love for food has foundations developed in his past. He began cooking in third grade when he and his family lived in Iraq.

“My older brother taught me how to make breakfast which would freak out my mom and dad because I had a pan and fire on the stove. But they saw how comfortable I was and how careful I was. After a year of cooking breakfasts, I just started experiencing with chicken and beef. My cooking urge just went up from one level to another,” he says.

Amanoail’s family relocated to Detroit in 1995.

“Here, in ninth grade, I would invite all my friends and have mostly barbecues,” he says. “That’s when I became fascinated with the marination process. Throughout my four years in high school, I marinated with different stuff.”

Afterward, Amanoail attended college, majoring in finance, where he learned recipes for success outside the kitchen.

“It teaches you another level of thinking,” he says. Then, he had to choose whether to finish school or run his family’s wireless business. The latter prevailed, and he learned to manage employees, which is part of the secret sauce of Pita Bistro’s success ten years later.

These days, Pita Bistro also provides catering, creating the same delicacies for big parties. On our recent visit, Amanoail and his team were prepping and cooking for a 200-person engagement party in Paradise Valley while simultaneously taking and serving orders to their walk-in patrons.

“It’s a big difference when you marinate for yourself, and you marinate for a big group and cook for yourself or a big group. The stakes are way higher,” says Amanoail.

How Pita Bistro’s menu works

For day-to-day customers, individual orders take a much more granular level. When customers place their orders — whether for a pita wrap, salad, or bowl — they must first choose a base that can consist of various hummuses (regular, chipotle and jalapeño/cilantro), mixed greens, lentils, brown rice or saffron rice.

Next, the customers choose from various toppings including veggies, crushed pita chips and feta cheese before picking a sauce option from a lineup of spicy ranch, tahini, tzatziki, garlic dip or house vinaigrette.

“At the last step of picking your meat, you see your protein getting cooked right behind where the kitchen is,” says Amanoail.

The meat options are tofu, falafel, za’atar steak, chicken kebob, gyro and Chicken Shawarma.

“They can customize it as they go down the line because the diners are seeing their pitas or bowls being built,” he says.

The allure of the restaurant is the visual and auditory experience and the patron-and-food-maker engagement. That, plus the outstanding flavours.

“The palate is the biggest imaginary thing you have. When you play with flavours — it’s like mixing colours, but you are tasting these colours. Experimenting with spices and marination is magic,” says Amanoail.

Note from the Editor: This feature has been edited from its original publication here.

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