Fast Casual Eateries Redefining Quick Cuisine

The super-hot fast casual trend is taking the region by storm, demonstrating that counter service doesn’t mean bad food.

(To be published by South Bay Accent magazine)

While fast food undeniably has a bad rep, Americans still like the stuff, with one in four citizens consuming some sort of fast food daily. Made-ahead greasy burgers, oily pizza, salty fries — people enjoy such fare not just because the unhealthful properties resonate with guilty taste buds but largely due to the fact it’s inexpensive and, well , fast. But the supersize-me crowd is being joined by more discriminating eaters as both flock to one of the hottest dining trends in the last few years: fast casual restaurants.

Marrying lower prices and self service with a farm-to-table mindset, today’s fast casual dining spots proudly promote made-to-order “real food” featuring local produce, nourishing and creative preparations as well as an ecological consciousness often seen in recyclable materials and a low carbon footprint. One recent study predicted such restaurants would reach nation-wide sales of close to $67 billion by 2020, with the fast casual movement being the culmination of other trends that have been bubbling along like the trans fats in a deep fryer.

Concerns over growing obesity among Americans — often tied to our junk food consumption — and greater awareness of environmental issues like sustainability, humane treatment of animals and reducing food waste helped pave the way.  This led some big chains like Taco Bell, Papa John’s and Panera Bread to take out some dicey addictives in their offerings and other junk food purveyors to offer some “healthy” menu choices.  Then some three-star chefs eying a new customer base gave the trend cachet by leaping on board.

High-end ingredients and creative recipes with a healthy twist define today’s many fast casual destinations.

In the Bay Area, star chef Michael Mina has recently added some fast casual joints to his high-end portfolio that includes Ramen Bar, attracting hordes to an offering of unorthodox noodle soups, poke choices, salad and pastries. Fellow cooking king Daniel Patterson now operates LocoL, sort of a Michelin version of the golden arches that serves tofu-and-chicken nuggets and grain-and-beef burgers wrapped up in buns from renowned Tartine Bakery.

Lately, fast casual outposts like these in San Francisco are as thick as fog on a summer day.  But this movement is also quite well represented in the South Bay, which seems to be a must-have location for the mini or large chains that are helping this trend flourish. Locally, the fast casual choices include upscale burger spots and super-healthy veggie counters as well as restaurants focused on Asian, Mediterranean, Indian and other cuisines whose commonality is quick service with three-star recipes that would please a picky school nutritionist.

Here’s our guide to the best fast casual dining spots in the South Bay for those who don’t just want their food quick and affordable but also deliciously fresh.

 Vegging Out

Tender Greens has a popular location in Stanford Shopping Center.

Tender Greens

Los Angeles seems to be the point of conception for some of the hugely popular, healthy, fast casual chains now germinating in the South Bay, with this greens dispenser at the forefront.  The concept is higher-end food at skinnier prices so Tender Greens calls itself a “fine casual” restaurant. Besides a bunch of very appealing salads — available in small or large portions — like seared tuna Niçoise, chipotle chicken and salami and kale, this light, bright chain offers “big plates” such as grilled marinated steak with Yukon gold mashed potatoes, rosemary fried chicken and herb-brushed albacore. Items are prepared and cooked to order so those who like their steak rare or well done are accommodated. Direct-from-the-farm ingredients are turned into seasonal recipes, with sandwiches, soups and a number of tasty sides available along with the main event. Several locations are in the Bay Area in addition to Palo Alto and there are Tender Greens all over Southern California.

180 El Camino Real #1050 (Stanford Shopping Center), Palo Alto; (650) 285-6702. http://www.tendergreens.com

Vegetables star in the pick-your-own offerings at Sweetgreen.

Sweetgreen 

Sprouting like spring vegetables, this sustainability-oriented chain is picky about the provenance of its ingredients — farmers are highlighted in signage — and has locations across the East Coast, Midwest and California, including four in the Bay Area. Like many other fast casual restaurants, Sweetgreen uses the build-your-own approach popular at Chipotle and poke bars as patrons select a gluten-free base (greens, wild rice, quinoa, etc.), pick up to four ingredients that are mostly prepared veggies like spicy broccoli and hot chickpeas but also include nuts, dried fruit and sprouts, pop on what the restaurant  calls a “premium” (cheeses, roasted tofu, chicken, shrimp and more), then select one of more than a dozen dressings made, like everything, in house.  Decision-challenged guests can choose a pre-picked assortment like pesto portobello that, besides the mushrooms and basil dressing, includes quinoa, greens, chicken, hot chickpeas and spicy broccoli. These have calorie counts, which can be a bit disconcerting for those who’d rather not know.

581 Ramona St., Suite 120, Palo Alto; (415) 212-7385; (coming) 440 Castro St., Mountain View; (no phone yet). http://www.sweetgreen.com 

The first Lemonade in the South Bay is located in a glass-enclosed spot on Palo Alto’s main drag.

Lemonade

Another Los Angeles-based healthy chain in a cafeteria setting, Lemonade has a vegetable-driven menu and was named for the trendy beverage-of-the-moment, which here comes in flavors like blood orange, blueberry mint, coconut-apple-kefir and watermelon rosemary.  Guests walk down the line and pick out small plates containing salads, sides, entrees, sandwiches and desserts but the colorful, enticing looks of these made-from-scratch dishes often translate to a tray full of food and thus a higher tally. Nobody is complaining too loudly, however, given choices like delicious truffled mac and cheese, braised red miso short ribs and chicken with green chile.  Also popular are avocado salmon louie, olive oil-poached ahi tuna, and guacamole with pine nuts.  As common across Southern California these days as some fast-food outlets, Lemonade is growing its Bay Area presence of late as well.  Frequent South Bay guests like to top off their meal with huge, addictive cookies, macarons in various flavors or other not-for-dieters choices like nutella cheesecake and choco-mint pie.

151 University Ave., Palo Alto, (650) 524-5028; 1152 Burlingame Ave., Burlingame, (650) 524-5003. www.lemondadela.com

Herb walls, modern, bright decor and low-cal menus are hallmarks of LYFE Kitchen locations.
LYFE Kitchen

Famously founded by a former McDonald’s executive with a guilty conscience, LYFE is an early healthy fast casual restaurant in the region, with its original spot in Palo Alto still going strong after six years. More so than its brethren, LYFE appears to want to do something about obesity  — the average American woman now weighs 166 pounds according to the CDC — so reports calorie counts for everything, with all items under 600 calories and 1000 mg of sodium. Interestingly, some big-eater guests have complained about the food not being filling and some skimpy portions — those lower calories have to come from somewhere — but many enjoy healthful options like faux fried chicken, gluten-free flatbreads, airy but flavorful fish tacos, spicy buffalo chicken strips and quinoa crunch bowl filled with veggie goodness.  The “herb wall” (the flavorful greens lit up like a starlet), modern, well-lit interiors and earnest approach to dining have made this little chain a hit, with a few locations now sprinkled across the country.

167 North Hamilton Ave., Palo Alto, (650) 325-5933; 19399 Stevens Creek Blvd., Suite #5,
Cupertino, 669-231-4910. http://www.lyfekitchen.com

 

Spiffy Burgers

Devoted to have-it-your-way burgers, The Counter has locations in the U.S. and even overseas.

The Counter

Yet another SoCal creation, The Counter has no high-minded goal about cutting calories, focusing on mouth indulgence and made-from-scratch, “custom-built” burgers using fresh ingredients.  This approach has been so successful that locations are now approaching 40, even overseas, but most are in the Los Angeles area. The checklist-type menu lets guests order a huge variation in “burgers,” which here also include non-beef options like chicken-parmesan, crab cake, bison, ground turkey and vegetarian.  When it comes to the cow, the meat is antibiotic and hormone free and dressed up with an endless array of flavorings like jalapenos, grilled red onions, bacon and more. The Counter has also cranked up the creativity and quality on classic accompaniments that include to-die-for sweet potato fries with horseradish aioli, parmesan fries, fried dill pickles with apricot sauce and some seriously addictive shakes with a wide range of flavors including apple crumble, oreo, cherry pie filling and salted pretzel.
3055 Olin Ave., Suite 1035, San Jose, (408) 423-9200; 20080 Stevens Creek Blvd., Cupertino, (408) 477-2917; 2580 W. El Camino Real, Mountain View, (650) 948-2333; 369 South California Ave., Palo Alto, (650) 321-3900; 41 West Hillsdale Blvd., San Mateo, (650) 212-3200; 39350 Paseo Padre Parkway, Fremont, (510) 796-8800. http://www.thecounterburger.com

 

Said by some writers as having the best burgers around, Super Duper Burgers is a Bay Area-founded chain.

Super Duper Burgers

Taking the fresh approach to a higher level than The Counter is this Bay Area-grown chain that trumpets its focus on local, sustainable ingredients and quality. The grass-fed beef is “humanely raised” and the buns come from a local artisan baker. Even the organic ice cream for the shakes comes from a high-end local dairy. Naturally, the packaging is all compostable and even the sign painters are local. Single- or double-patty, outrageously juicy burgers are offered, along with non-beef choices such as a veggie burger — reportedly, a very tasty one — and chicken patty, the latter punched up with chipotle aioli. Patrons rave about the garlic fries, which come topped with aged cheddar, the house-made pickles and generous amount of bacon for those craving a bacon burger.  The thick shakes include flavors like double chocolate with chips and cookies and cream.  With several locations in San Francisco and the North Bay, this little chain is bound to keep on growing.
2855 Stevens Creek Blvd. (Valley Fair), Santa Clara, (408) 985-1352; 15991 Los Gatos Blvd., Building 3, Los Gatos, (408) 356-0684. www.superduperburgers.com

 

Healthy Ethnic

Just one of many inventive creations at Curry Up Now is the “deconstructed samosa.”

Curry Up Now

Starting as a food truck and later adding brick-and-mortar locations as well as trendy bars, this locally grown mini-chain making inventive “Indian street food” takes this spicy, exciting cuisine and turns it into fresh, lip-smacking dishes including choices friendly to vegetarians, vegans and gluten-intolerant guests. Curry Up Now has no pretense of delivering rigorous authenticity, serving dishes like chicken tikka masala burritos, deconstructed samosas and sweet potato waffle fries with spicy dip.  The offerings are extensive and enticing, featuring a slew of tasty snacks, rolls, bowls, burritos and even desserts.  The cheeky menu has fun items like “naughty naan,” which is white- or wheat-flour flatbread topped with cheese, caramelized onions, shaved jalapeños and tikka masala. To sample little bites of several things, order a thali, which is essentially a $13 tasting menu. Besides the three South Bay locations, there are restaurants in San Francisco and Oakland.

3250 Zanker Rd #30, San Jose, (408) 770-3541; 321 Hamilton Ave., Palo Alto, (650) 300-4690; 129 South B St., San Mateo, (650) 316-8648. http://www.curryupnow.com

 

Asian Box assembles a bowl full of Vietnamese-influenced freshness for customers in its growing number of locations.

Asian Box

Another build-your-own-in-a-bowl concept, this little chain launched in 2011 in Palo Alto and has met with great success, serving sort-of Vietnamese but actually pan-Asian food featuring lots of fresh ingredients. Guests pick a base (rice, noodles or greens), a protein, toppings — all seven can be included — that range from pickled vegetables to scallion oil and crispy shallots, then select a sauce.  Scrupulously sourced ingredients and compostable packaging resonate with the usually-young patrons, who can opt for combinations chosen by the chef, such as the filling “ox box,” layering rice, two scoops of garlic-glazed beef, tossed veggies, all the toppings, caramel egg, sriracha and “Asian street dust,” a fiery, sweet, well-spiced concoction.  Visitors marvel at the restaurant’s ability to cook meats to such a perfect level of doneness and like the Vietnamese iced coffee that’s available, although the guava kombucha gets the biggest nods.
(coming soon) 1078 E. Brokaw Rd., San Jose, (no phone yet); 855 El Camino Real (Town & Country Shopping Center), Palo Alto, (650) 391-9305; 142 Castro St., Mountain View, (650) 584-3947; 1401 Burlingame Ave., Burlingame, (650) 315-2582. http://www.asianbox.com

HOM Korean in San Jose will likely soon become a multi-location chain by serving tasty, inexpensive Korean food in endless variations.

HOM Korean Kitchen

With Korean food having become trendy recently, it was inevitable that a fast casual, build-your-own spot would emerge, with HOM in San Jose being the first of what will likely become a chain of freshness-focused, well-priced dining spots.  Korean cuisine is famous for its grilled meats and spicy fermented kimchi, with both well represented here.  Choices of rice, grains or veggies are topped with proteins like firecracker pork, braised beef or barbecued chicken, then three banchan are added, which translates to “side dishes” but here include various kimchees and prepared vegetables. Naturally, vegan and gluten-intolerant diners can find plenty to enjoy.  Guests rave about the soft, flavorful braised beef, short ribs and Korean steak, with the banchan adding extra flavor to a bowl full of healthy, filling food. Try the homemade ginger ale or for the adventurous, mix it with soju, a potent, vodka-like liquor.

76 E. Santa Clara St., San Jose, (408) 703-4777. http://www.homkoreankitchen.com

 Wrapping up various proteins, veggies, starches and more inside wrappers has made the fusion of sushi and burritos at Sushirrito a big Bay Area hit. 

Sushirrito

A unique fusion concept invented in San Francisco marrying sushi with burritos, Sushirrito has been such a success that lines typically formed to get in during the restaurant’s earlier days. While these have died down a bit as new locations have opened, the buzz has continued, built around the idea of made-to-order, hand-held sushi burritos that are outrageously original in how different cuisines are piled into a fat, filling roll. Unlike other fast casual counters, combinations are defined and guests order the one they want, which is then quickly prepared.  Texture excitement is added with some crunchy inclusions like lotus chips. Try the “Geisha’s Kiss,” combining raw tuna, tamago, piquillo peppers, cucumber, lettuce, ginger guacamole and tobiko with white soy, or adobo-style pork belly with shaved cabbage, radish, peppers, pork rind chips and herb-rich sauce.  Particularly popular is a roll featuring cooked salmon and tempura-style asparagus with pickled cucumber, lettuce, more ginger guacamole and a dusting of wasabi. Besides locations around the Bay Area, there are now Sushirritos in New York City.

2855 Stevens Creek Blvd. (Valley Fair), Santa Clara, (408) 237-3222; 448 University Ave.,
Palo Alto, (650) 600-9696. http://www.sushirrito.com

 

Palate-pleasing Middle Eastern food in combos picked by guests has been a hit at Sajj Mediterranean.

Sajj Mediterranean Foods

This is yet another build-your-own dining spot, but featuring Mediterranean/Middle Eastern food, which lends itself well to the concept.  Launched from a successful food truck, Sajj uses some locally sourced products, with the falafels crisp and the hummus creamy. Guests start with a protein like tasty falafel balls, pomegranate chicken or shawarma (spiced, grilled mixed meats), then decide if they want it on top of a salad, in a wrap or accompanied by rice in a bowl. Then the diner picks from among a long list of side dishes (sumac onion, eggplant ragout, tasty roasted cauliflower), chutneys, sauces and dressings. Generous portions and friendly service have produced many fans. Vegans and vegetarians can find plenty to like and guests particularly compliment the baklava for dessert. Signature house-made drinks include mint lemonade, a sweet-tart tamarind beverage and mint-yogurt drink. Most of the five Bay Area locations are in the South Bay.

4140 North First St., Suite 10, San Jose, (408) 944-9022; 2580 West EL Camino Real, Mountain View, (650) 941-7255; 123 S. Frances St., Sunnyvale, (408) 746-5970; 883 Hamilton Ave.,
Menlo Park, (650) 322-7255. http://www.sajjstreeteats.com

 

Scrumptious Greek food and light, bright locations has drawn many happy customers to Nick the Greek, which has colonized the South Bay.

Nick the Greek

Another enormously tasty variety of Mediterranean food is Greek cuisine, which is well prepared by the three cousins — all named Nick — who launched this South Bay chain in 2014. Calling itself the “souvlaki and gyro house,” this restaurant group also does quite a good job on falafels — thus appealing to vegans and vegetarians — and creations like “Greek fries,” which accompany the spuds with feta cheese, garlic and green onions.  The souvlaki (chunks of flavored grilled meats) and gyro (spiced mixed meat cooked on a rotisserie) are quite wonderful and generously portioned. Be sure to try them with the tasty tzatziki sauce, a yummy dill-garlic-yogurt combo.  Or try the delicious beef-lamb “burger” with feta cheese.  Naturally, lemony avgolemono soup and Greek salad are on the menu, as are loukoumades, soft Greek donuts with nuts and honey.

3129 Meridian Ave., San Jose, (408), 620-1095; 1399 Lincoln Ave., San Jose, (408) 816-7829; 5019 Almaden Expressway, San Jose, (408) 622-8720; 788 N. King Rd., San Jose, (408) 649-3500; 143 W. Santa Clara St., San Jose, (408) 294-6425; 1687 Hollenbeck Ave., Sunnyvale, (408) 685-2830; 2034 Broadway, Redwood City,(650) 260-0081. http://www.nickthegreeksj.com

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