When you grow up in the suburbs, there aren’t a lot of places to go.
You may have earned your license after painfully sitting through hours after hours of driver’s ed classes, but there are no museums, un-kitschy cafes, or any real place of cultural significance (at least to a teenager) to be found. So where else to go but the ubiquitous, kitschy cultural zeitgeist of America: the drive-thru. One spot in particular was a pain for pickup: Pita Inn. Combine a small parking lot, cheap lunch deals, and recklessly aggressive suburban drivers, and you get the shit show that was retrieving carryout.
The food is adequate: shawarma wraps, crispy falafel drowning in tahini sauce, and the usual grease that makes everything taste good enough. But is it anything special? Growing up in the northern suburbs where Pita Inns dotted the map between here and downtown, the restaurant seemed like a given fast food option anywhere deemed a casual dining spot.
So, when my buddy flew down to Chicago from small town Alaska to revive her soul with civilization after a year of service and simple living, and the only place on her bucket list was Pita Inn, I was less than encouraging.
“Mary, Pita Inn is a Mediterranean McDonalds.”
But as host, I played nice. We drove directly from O’Hare to Skokie, city of the original Pita Inn. The first Pita Inn opened its doors in 1982. More stores would open northward as the decades rolled by, but in 1999, the OG Pita Inn expanded into the lot right next door to house a Mediterranean grocery store and pita production.
There are so many ways in which you could talk about Pita Inn: as the story of successful immigrant entrepreneurs, as a sign of Chicago suburbs’ diversity, but it is 10 in the morning on a Thursday, and we’re outside of the Pita Inn Market & Bakery watching puffed up pitas traveling up a conveyer belt. The workers are amused enough to laugh, grab some pita, and hand it to us as we stare at the contraption in awe. The pita tastes like a cloud: light, fluffy, and clean.
The market half of the store doesn’t offer such a simple experience. The shelves are filled with teas, Turkish Delight, and tahini jars; all that you would expect with an ethnic grocery store focused on Mediterranean flavors. The baked good section was well stocked with a wide selection of baklava and other treats. After perusing all the feta cheese options, it was 10:57 a.m.: prime lunchtime.
We walked over next store to the site of the first Pita Inn. Since 1982, another Pita Inn opened on Dempster, and the original site rebranded as Zad. If Pita Inn is fast food, then Zad most closely resembles fast casual. Although, do not expect a Roti’s when you step in; the food is more traditional with dishes like fatet makdous and foule.
We ordered the lunch specials: vegetarian and meat-centric. The falafel was crispy and moist, the rice fragrant, and pita divine when paired with the smooth hummus. While Zad doesn’t carry shawarma like Pita Inn, it has plans to bring the dish to its menu soon.
If you’re in Skokie or the northern suburbs, come check out one of Pita Inn’s storefronts. Pita Inn, the Market and Bakery, and Zad all exclusively carry the same show-stopping pita. Pita Inn might not be a fine dining destination in itself, but if you are already in the area, it is not to be missed.