Falafel, hummus, and pitas aren’t your typical American restaurant favorites.
Increasingly, however, these items are making their way onto the nation’s menuboards as part of the growing popularity of food rooted in the eastern and southern Mediterranean. And, not surprisingly, more quick-service and fast-casual restaurants are serving them.
“Americans have been looking for spicier, bolder, more flavorful offerings, and we are seeing that in food of the eastern and southern Mediterranean,” says Darren Tristano, executive vice president at Technomic, the Chicago-based restaurant consultancy.
Nearly as important from a limited-service standpoint, dishes from the Levant—eastern Mediterranean—and North Africa are typically portable and often healthy.
Quick-service Mediterranean brands are popping up across the country, featuring such favorites as shawarma, tabouleh, and baba ghanoush. They may not be the next spaghetti and meatballs, burritos, or lo mein, but they are catching on.
“These type of dishes have very bold flavors, and there is a niche for them,” says Leo Timatyos, founder of nascent ChickPita Fresh Mediterranean Grill, which has four units in Southern California and one in Chicago. “I felt a quick-serve concept could fill the niche.”
Alon Mor thought the same, and that led him to launch Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill in Denver in 2008, the year that ChickPita also launched. The Colorado operation has 13 units and is expected to expand outside the state this year.
“I saw what the Asian fast-casual food segment did and the Mexican food segment, and there was no reason we couldn’t do the same,” says Mor, whose restaurant chain features Mediterranean and Middle Eastern foods that are popular in his native Israel.
Many menu items and flavors at these new eateries have been popular for centuries in countries from Turkey to Morocco. But most Americans in the past have considered Mediterranean to be pasta, sauces, and other cuisine from Italy, southern France, Spain, and Greece.
“There is a broader, richer Mediterranean than many people have generally considered,” says Bill Briwa, chef instructor at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena, California. “These foods have migrated all around the region.”
In fact, the Mediterranean “is a huge melting pot,” says Bill Post, CEO of Roti Mediterranean Grill, which began in 2007 and has seven units in the Chicago and Washington, D.C. areas. “There are all types of flavors and spices that we use.”
Food from countries around the Mediterranean Sea got an extra push in the 1990s with the heart-healthy Mediterranean Diet. The base of the pyramid-shaped plan consists of olive oil, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, herbs, spices, and whole grains.
These ingredients are prominent in the menus at many quick-service restaurants that feature dishes from the eastern and southern Mediterranean.
“In some cases, the ingredients and flavors may not be familiar to some Americans, but consumers are looking for spicier, bolder, and more flavorful offerings,” Tristano says. “Not only that, but they have healthfulness, with olive oils, salads, and hummus.”
Garbanzo’s Mor says it is important to be authentic. “I get a container of products every month from Israel” to make sure customers get the “real thing,” he says.
Healthfulness and freshness are central to many Mediterranean restaurants—not necessarily the diet that carries the region’s name. But Garbanzo this year developed an initiative that combines healthy eating tips and social media support.
The program emphasizes the benefits of the Mediterranean Diet and encourages Garbanzo’s social media followers to post and share their healthy-eating stories on the chain’s Facebook page.
Although most Mediterranean restaurants in the U.S. feature many nutritious menu items from the base of the Mediterranean Diet’s pyramid, their menus also contain plenty of dishes with meat, which sits atop the triangle, meaning it should be eaten in smaller amounts.
Lamb, beef, and chicken are prepared as shawarma, a term derived from the Turkish word for turning. Pork is not used because of the region’s historic religious practices.
Slices of spiced meat are placed on a stick, cooked over a flame or broiler, and then sliced vertically. It is typically served as a sandwich using a pita or flatbread.
Different spices and toppings for shawarma depend on the styles of various countries, “which all prepare it their own way,” Timatyos says.