By Susan Belknapp
Fast Casual it’s everywhere. A concept we barely had a name for a few years ago has now caught fire and is bringing new, creative takes on some of the old guard segments of the restaurant industry. The offerings are usually innovative, the ingredients fresh and cuisine leaning toward specialty niches, whether they’re organic, farm-fresh, vegan or ethnic.
To kick off the New Year (and those pesky resolutions what happened to those again?) many of the new and established players in the area revved up their creative juices in order to keep improving their game. It’s interesting to note that these new concepts don’t necessarily have “healthy menus” as their primary motivation, which can be a hard sell in the food biz, they offer delicious food that happens to have nutritious benefit. Whether it’s Mediterranean, plant-based, Mexican or a new slant on salad, “healthy, fast and satisfying” no longer need to be mutually exclusive.
Sharky’s Woodfired Mexican Grill
With four locations in Orange County, Sharky’s is a relatively new, but exploding player on the fast-casual scene, helped by marrying a few California favorites: Mexican, fresh and healthy.
The concept is a commitment to nutrient-rich, organic, non-GMO food. As often as possible the food is hand-crafted, locally sourced and never frozen. A wood-fire grill sparks up the fresh flavors of fish, tofu and vegetables.
Some highlights include:
Super-Food Salad Sharky’s Quinoa-organic red & white quinoa, organic baby spinach, cabbage, jicama, cucumber, sweet peppers, green onions, cilantro, avocado vinaigrette topped with avocado slices & sprinkle of toasted flax & chia seeds
Salmon Lite Burrito wild-caught salmon wrapped in nori with chili aioli sauce, wrapped in whole-wheat tortilla with cucumber and cabbage
Take the edge off the spicy burn with watermelon lemonade infused with basil or a locally sourced beer. (select locations only)
Power Plates offer a choice of protein (all-natural chicken breast, Angus steak; wild-caught salmon or the catch of the day; shrimp or organic tofu) and two or three organic sides (Poblano brown rice, Mexican-style rice, quinoa with veggies, grilled or steamed veggies, black beans, pinto beans, steamed broccoli or Yucatan yams).
Santa Monica-based Veggie Grill, which originated in Irvine, launched a new Mindful Living menu at the beginning of the year, which features items under 600 calories.
Menu highlights include:
Mindful Mash-up Field Roast sausage, supergrains, kale and white bean braise, fire-roasted carrots, roasted red pepper sauce
Treschickin’ Tacos + Black Beans sauteed chickin’, Mexican spices, cabbage, roasted corn salsa, white corn tortilla, side of seasoned black beans
Banh Mi Salad organic tofu pressed and glazed, chargrilled eggplant, house-pickled carrots, white cabbage, fresh jalapenos, basil and cilantro, marinated kale
Chargrilled Veggie + Penne trio of charred eggplant, red bell peppers and escarole, roasted sweet potatoes, quinoa and marinated kale bed, citrus vinaigrette, pepitas, penne pasta (Served cold)
B.T.L.A. smokey tempeh bacon, sliced tomatoes, avocado, cilantro pesto, tossed arugula, aioli mayo, grilled sourdough, choice of side
Latin Living Bowl fire-roasted carrots, seasoned black beans, avocado chunks, tomato corn salsa, jalapenos, red pepper sauce with supergrains
Bombay Bowl herb-roasted veggies, supergrains, steamed kale, cannellini beans, cilantro/green curry sauce with coconut milk, almonds, hemp seeds
Slapfish, with locations in Huntington, Newport and Laguna Beachs is, a fast-casual concept that opened in 2012 to present an “American seafood experience” that takes a protein-packed Paleo approach to its cuisine. Executive Chef/Owner Andrew Gruel’s creations are touted as “all the buzz, without the bore, without the guilt.”
Chef Gruel is constantly changing the menu but the sustainably-caught fish staples and fresh produce always add up to a variety of delicious options.
You can ask for your sandwich “protein style,” get a Daily Fish salad or platter in order to stick with your low-carb or Paleo goals, and can never go wrong with his signature California Powerbowl kale, salmon, local black cod, almonds, quinoa, avocado, cucumber, and lemon vinaigrette.
“Always-available healthy dishes also include our salads, Grilled Fish and Chips, Taco Bowls (alternative to the award-winning taco) and our handheld sandwiches and rolls made protein style’ packed between lettuce,” says Gruel.
The restaurant is a modern seafood shack founded by Gruel and the company is committed to using seafood sourced from well-managed suppliers of eco-friendly seafood. Gruel has made it his mission to get people to eat the right types of product, by emphasizing that “sustainable” tastes better. The company works with multiple organizations to ensure that they are utilizing the most current data on over-fishing, harmful fishing practices and responsible fish farming.
Daphne’s California Greek
Daphne’s has been through a few manifestations over the years and if you haven’t been to the most recent, you need to go. You can get some of your more traditional Greek bites, such as falafel and gyros, but you can also get delicious, fresh salads with a variety of fresh ingredients all done with a Mediterranean-meets-California flair.
You can order salads, such as Greek, California and Mediterranean, flatbread pizzas, pita sandwiches, and grilled seafood paired with tasty sides such as a spicy Fire Feta dip, roasted veggies, and savory tabouli. Most menu items are under 700 calories and can be customized to accommodate low-fat, low-carb, high protein diets as well as vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free diets.
Healthy Menu Highlights:
‘¢Mediterranean Salad grilled chicken, greens, red cabbage, artichokes, tomatoes. cucumbers, feta cheese, kalamata olives, garbanzo beans and balsamic hummus dressing.
Steak Pita warm pita filled with grilled steak, lettuce, tomatoes, bell peppers, red onions, gorgonzola cheese and vinaigrette.
Garlic Herb-Salmon served with fire-roasted vegetables and rice
This Culver City-based “slow food” chain came in at No. 94 on the 2014 Forbes Most Promising Companies list, which is no small feat for the 13-location concept created by veterans of Ritz-Carlton, the Four Seasons and Pan Pacific Hotels.
The restaurant serves organic, locally sourced food with a commitment to its “farm-to-fork” quality and sustainability. The two Orange County locations are in Irvine (Irvine Spectrum Center and UC Irvine). The menus vary by location and daily specials that can be found on the website.
Some of the recent favorites offered in OC are:
Grilled Octopus Salad Grilled octopus, shaved fennel, marinated chickpeas, olives, grilled lemon vinaigrette
Herb-brushed albacore Available with sides such as farmers market roasted vegetables or served atop a Nicoise salad
Backyard Steak Salad Marinated steak grilled medium rare with red and green butter lettuce, radishes, red and gold beets with horseradish vinaigrette
Chinese Chicken Salad -Tatsoi, mizuna, golden pea sprouts, carrot, wontons, roasted peanuts, cilantro, green onion and sesame dressing.
Executive Chef Shachi Mehra’s new concept ADYA, located in the Anaheim Packing District” is reflective of modern India and revolves around fresh, sustainable ingredients, prepared simply.”
For those looking for healthier options with an ethnic flair, ADYA features dishes include:
‘¢Bhel Puri puffed rice, cucumbers, tomatoes, and dried mango
Masala Papad local farm-fresh vegetables and cilantro atop a crisp papadum.
“At ADYA, we pride ourselves on creating fun, flavorful dishes from the freshest ingredients,” says Mehra. “We’ve established relationships with local farmers, growers and purveyors to form a symbiotic relationship and develop a menu sourced from the best local, organic, and biodynamic ingredients possible.”
ADYA’s menu features sustainable meats complemented by the tasty, bold flavors and spices of India and features protein-packed favorites like Chicken Tikka, Tandoori Shrimp, and Lamb Seekh Kababs.
Greenleaf Gourmet Chop Shop
In just a few short years, Greenleaf Gourmet Chop Shop is making quite the name for itself. In fact, it just opened its fifth location in Hollywood. The others are in Beverly Hills, Century City and two in Costa Mesa. Its mission is based on bringing a chef-driven menu to a fast-casual concept.
“We jokingly call it Farm-to-Face” says Jonathan Rollo, Commander-in-Leaf. Since Day One, it has been our goal to source the highest-quality local ingredients and provide the fuel of a health-conscious lifestyle. Our menu reflects the food my team and I want our family and friends to be able to eat every day. We’re not preaching a certain diet or fad, but allowing our clients to tailor make their meals as desired from the freshest premium products.”
A few of its standout items include:
‘¢Antioxidant Orchard Salad Scarborough Farms baby mixed greens, grapes, celery, agave roasted walnuts, dried berries, apples, blue cheese, mint, red onion, cucumbers, and fresh berries, tossed in a pomegranate whole grain mustard vinaigrette
Turkey Melt Sandwich (voted best Turkey Sandwich in America) aged cheddar, truffled spinach, caramelized onions, and Greenleaf’s signature whole grain mustard aioli all on a pretzel bread bun
BBQ Chicken Flatbread Pizza grilled chicken breast, red onion, cilantro, fresh mozzarella, aged cheddar and roasted pepperoncini blend topped off with house-made spicy chipotle orange BBQ sauce.
Being short on time and money no longer precludes healthy, inventive dining options. You can have delicious, innovative options with the freshest ingredients available and not feel a bit of guilt about it.