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Dining Around the World the Fast-Casual Way

From Mexican to Mediterranean, enjoy mixing and making your own meals at these popular DIY eateries

With so many fast-casual concept restaurants popping up, it’s hard to tell the difference between them. The flavor of the day is a semi-DIY assembly line approach to making a meal, where the customer picks the main component of their entrée and then can add in other elements, aided by a counter worker. Subway was one of the first to do this, and chains like Chipotle, Qdoba, Cava and Mezza Grill followed.

Some of the fast-casual restaurants have perfected this co-prep style of ordering, and some have taken a step further with customization of foods that can be flash cooked. If it’s all become a blur, here’s a quick primer on the good, the baked and the healthy.

Chipotle is my life.”  At least that’s the confession of one young YouTuber sensation, and a few hundred thousand other people. For the next generation of millennials who want to have it their way but would not set foot in a MacDonald’s, Chipotle Mexican Grill is their frame of reference for fast food, though really, it’s fast-casual.  You go through the line, loading up on diced proteins, rice, corn and other toppings, inventing your very own modern Mexican mash-up of flavorful fresh foods, in less than a few minutes. Chipotle offers just enough choices to make it interesting but not so many you feel overwhelmed.  Its tasty enough the whole family will like it, and healthy enough even Michelle Obama eats there.

Qdoba is a more Mexican version of Chipotle, with a lot of customization choices along with ready-made options so you don’t have to make too many decisions. Their quality and satisfaction guarantee is that if you don’t like it, they will remake it. They fire grill their steak and chicken and slow-roast their pulled pork every day. They hand-mash their guacamole and include guac on every entrée by request at no cost. They feature a variety of salsas and encourage guests to try mixtures of flavors, including a signature spicy Habanero Salsa with a fruity flavor and creamy three-cheese queso.

Cava is a healthy eater’s protein and greens dream. The only quirky part about this build-it-yourself eatery is you have to be part chemist to figure it out, but once you grasp the system, you’ll be chowing down on delicious bowls and pitas to live for. You start with a base, like salad, rice or pita; then you choose from an assortment of dips and spreads, like hummus or a feta; then choose a protein of chicken, lamp, or beef; then choose from toppings like olives, slaw or quinoa; and lastly drizzle a dressing, such as sriracha Greek yogurt or lemon herb tahini. Of course, none of these menu items are so straightforward, i.e., feta is “jalapeno-infused feta mouse,”– and beginners will likely have to ask at least a few questions as they travel down the line pointing through the glass case at their selections. The good news is that it gets easier, and it’s worth it.

Mezeh Mediterranean Grill is an exotic delight if Mediterranean style food is your taste, then Mezza has plenty of hand selected fillers for your pita or your plate, like chicken shawarma, lamb kefta, shredded lamb, falafel, kebobs, basmati rice and chickpeas; greens like arugula and kale; and sauces like tahina and harissa aioli. The ingredients are fresh, bold and flavorful, but for the unindoctrinated, you may experience “menu paralysis” when overwhelmed with all of the choices. The best ideas is just to keep trying different options and finding your own perfect recipe for building your own bowl, pita pocket or flatbread wrap. Of course, there’s also hummus and seasoned pita chips and baklava light snacking and desserting.